American-born author Robin McKinley has been writing fantasy for middle-grade through adult readers for over forty years, and has won numerous awards, including the Newberry Medal for The Hero and the Crown. She lives in England with her husband, author Peter Dickinson, and two beloved hounds. For more on Robin McKinley, you can visit her Amazon author page, her official website, or her (often humorous) blog. Click here to read my reviews of her novels Beauty and Rose Daughter.
Dear Robin McKinley,
This is a thank you note I should have written twenty years ago, except that I was a shy middle schooler who didn’t even want to answer the phone. Not to mention that the Internet and personal email were only just beginning to catch on in my little corner of the world. But you still top the list of (living) authors whose works have meant the most to me through the years, and it’s high time to thank you for that.
I can clearly remember the “moment of meeting” for each of the books that has most impacted my imagination. I happened upon Tolkein’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, for example, the summer before I turned eight. We had just moved, I was perusing my dad’s newly-organized bookshelves, and there they were: the 1970s edition, with a pipe-smoking, grandfatherly Tolkein on the back who looked as if he’d like nothing better than to sit down in a leather armchair and tell me the most incredible story I’d ever heard.
Discovering your novel Beauty, three years later, was a similar moment. It was tucked away in the back corner of our library, near the small section of fantasy and fairy tales that I had already read exhaustively, multiple times, but I’d missed this one—it had been mistakenly filed on an adjacent shelf, below the hundred-plus Nancy Drew mysteries.
A single rose on the cover. One of my favorite fairy tales, brought to new life, with all the sparkling details and rich character development of a classic novel. I was smitten.
Then came high school, college and grad school, with thousands of pages of required reading and very little time for fiction. Beauty’s story always lingered in the back of my mind, though, and I knew that someday I had to find it again. A few years ago, I tracked it down on Amazon; then discovered, in rapid succession, your other novels. My only regret is not having read them years ago. I missed out on some good friends that my teenage and twenty-something self could have used.
A few aspects of your writing that I enjoy the most:
I love your characters. They tend to take up residence in my imagination and go on living and breathing there long after I’ve turned the last page of their story. So many fantasy authors lose connection with their readers by wrapping up their characters in needless archaisms; others create protagonists that talk and act just like 21st-century teens dressed up in medieval clothes. You create heroes and heroines that your readers can connect to on a deep, emotional level, but it takes time to get to know them. The best of your characters, like Corlath in The Blue Sword, are inseparable from the landscapes and cultures they inhabit.
I love your mastery of language. I truly enjoy discovering new, descriptive words like susurration that aren’t even in my computer’s dictionary. Some “experts” would say that words like these are a turn-off for readers. I find them fascinating. But then, of course, you use them well. You don’t throw in big words just to make yourself sound smarter, or as if you can create great literature simply by throwing in fancy vocabulary. You sprinkle them around like piquant seasoning, choosing just the right ones to enhance the flavor of each scene.
There’s also a sense of mystery, of haunting, in your work. It echoes the feeling of ancient myths and archetypal tales. Part of this is due to the aura of age in your world-building: the customs, dress, language and architecture in your novels appear rooted in centuries of prior history. More important, though, is the sense that there are forces at work much deeper and older than the characters themselves: an invisible “story behind the story.”
Last, but not least, I admire the way that your heroes and heroines bring out each other’s strength and beauty. Your heroines are bold, but each one of them also reaches a point where they realize that they can’t go it alone. They need the courage, loyalty, and wisdom of their friends…and their soul-mate. I like the way that your male leads actually highlight the heroine’s strength, rather than diminishing her. In many of your most memorable scenes, the hero and heroine draw out one another’s nobility, and fight together to destroy the evil pitted against them. They each reveal the other’s true, best self; and it’s in this context that they fulfil their destinies and save the ones they cherish.
These are just a few of the qualities that make your books stand out in the fantasy genre. I’ve been steadily working my way through your accumulated works of the last forty years, both short stories and long, and it has been a delightful journey. I hope that you will continue writing novels for many more years yet. And hopefully it won’t take me another two decades to thank you for them!
Readers: If you were to write a thank-you note to a favorite author (past or present), who would it be? What do you admire about their work?