When you’re in a new world, it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on. Words show up in conversations. Histories are referenced. A created world has to seem as complicated as our own. It’s really, really hard to do well. It’s much easier to write in our world, or to write a world so ridiculous, a novel so filled with annotations and made-up words, it’s only value is novelty.
Robin McKinley doesn’t write that kind of world. She writes worlds that you believe in so totally, seamlessly, you almost forget that it’s entirely fiction. She alludes without explaining, she gives the reader a pathway in without holding your hand and taking baby steps.
In the face of an alien world, McKinley also knows that we need the familiar to hang onto. If your protagonist is some all-powerful wizard, or if she’s involved in crazy vampire plots, make her a dog lover or a baker. Give her family conflicts, the kind we have with our Dads and Moms.
Worlds like these are the kind that seem so effortless, they clearly took lots of effort. “Shadows'” world is, like many McKinley novels, a different version of our own. It has a system, and its magic follows rules. We may not know the rules, but there is a sense of the diversity of the magic, of the different ways it is used and treated around the wold, and in the institutions that spring up around it. Familiar East-West conflicts are embedded in this new magical landscape, engaging with and breaking stereotypes as one.
And at the heart of it all is a girl, trying to grow up. In the end, everything else is detail.