I still don’t know what strange force pulled me towards this book. It’s not that I don’t like Robin McKinley – I’ve enjoyed every book by her that I’ve read. But I haven’t read her newer books since… I’m not sure, but I guess it must be three, four years ago. I’m definitely not attracted by the cover – I was kinda excited about a new McKinley that I could maybe use in promotions or highlights, but then thought the cover was rather unfortunate. It wasn’t going to help me sell the book at all, at least not here. And yet. Without even reading the synopsis, I told our Penguin guy that I wanted to read it. And somehow, a couple of weeks later he came over to my office to pass me a copy. And even though I have a very, very long (and tall, and wide) TBR stack, more than half being books from suppliers/publishers who are probably expecting orders/feedback, I started on it almost immediately.
Three pages in, I thought, this reads well in a Diana Wynne Jones-y kind of way. I haven’t even seen the dedication at the time (it was dedicated to DWJ). I just settled in for what I knew was going to be one of my best reads this year. Even though it’s only mid-February and I’ve read a lot of good books this year so far, and The Islands of Chaldea isn’t even out yet. (Harper keeps sending me books, and I enjoy most of them, but I wish they’d send me Chaldea!) There’s just something about this book that I can’t really pinpoint, that makes it so very lovely a read.
First of all, I really really loved Maggie, and not just because I love her voice, which I do. Most of the YAs I buy and read have female protagonists, and a lot of them are pretty kickass, but Maggie is especially endearing to me. There’s this thing that DWJ does very well that I love, where the protagonist wouldn’t see themselves the way others see them, and they go through this transformative journey where they become more aware of who they really are, which may sound like a typical coming-of-age thing that in some way or another happens in many YA books, but DWJ has a special knack in writing this. Like Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle, or Cat Chant in Charmed Life. The way Robin McKinley writes Maggie felt like that.
And then there’s the love triangle that wasn’t. I liked the way it’s handled, how Maggie’s initial crush fades and naturally gives way to stronger feelings (that the reader pretty much knew she had already, even if she didn’t). And Takahiro. I don’t think I’ve liked a YA male lead quite as much as I like him. But the likable/lovable characters doesn’t stop there – I liked Maggie’s best friend Jill a whole lot, and Casimir (somehow trying to imagine how he looks just brings me images of Howl, haha) and Val and Clare and Mongo and oh, Majid had to be one of the best fictional cats ever.
Is it obvious now that I am totally biased and am in love with this book? I kept raving about it to Kit as I was reading it, during lunch breaks and mornings at the office. Of course, it’s not completely perfect. The pacing is a bit odd, and I don’t always understand what’s going on in the scenes where there’s a lot of action, and would have to go back and re-read certain paragraphs to be sure, but for the most part, I just went with the flow, which worked for me. The characters – mostly Maggie and Jill – used Japanese in their conversations every now and then. Just a word here and there, mixed with English. It was explained as something they started to do to annoy Takahiro, and ended up liking being able to use words that others didn’t understand. Neither characters learned Japanese and only used words they looked up on the internet, so the occasional strange usage is expected, even if it was jarring for me to read. Although there are also times when I find myself thinking that they seem to know more than someone who only looked up certain words would. I got used to it halfway through the book, but when I first started, every time I come across a Japanese word I felt like I was jolted out of the book for a moment. (Then I would think of how the sentence would sound like if I translated it back to English, and on the occasions where it’s weird I would wonder about it, and then I’d give up and go back to the book.) By the time I finished reading the Japanese no longer bothered me and felt more like they belonged in the book, so I guess I’m not really complaining.
While I think it’s one of the best reads of the year for me, I still have a lot of good reading to look forward to, so I can’t be completely sure. What I am sure of, though, is this – I will definitely be telling everyone that I think would like it to read it. And I will be hand-selling this every chance I get. And I will be looking forward to reading more of the other McKinleys I missed out on in the last few years.
~ originally posted on Weebly