Pegasus by Robin McKinley – Bad Cover, Smart Book

I will start by saying that I love Robin McKinley’s books.  At ages twelve and thirteen The Blue Sword was second only to the work of Tamora Pierce in my heart.  As an adult I still rate Deerskin as one of the best fairy tale adaptations ever written and Sunshine as the best vampire novel I have ever read.  Traditionally the covers on McKinley’s work have been very appropriate, drawing in exactly the type of reader who would be likely to enjoy the cadence of her language, the gentle interweaving of steely characters and adventurous plots.  Imagine my dismay when I was confronted with the British cover for Pegasus, with its ridiculously out-of-context tagline, also the first line of the book: “Because she was a princess she had a Pegasus.”

Faced with this cover it took some determination to order in my copy of Pegasus, particularly given the looks I was receiving from my non-YA-reading bookseller colleagues.  Nevertheless, I trust Robin McKinley not to let me down.  She didn’t.

The trouble with this cover design for Pegasus, particularly with the misguided use of the first sentence of the book as a tagline, is that it projects entirely the wrong image of the novel.  This is a cover that twines one curl around its finger while wearing a fluffy pink dress and carrying a basket of kittens.  While this doesn’t make it a bad cover per se, it does make it a bad cover for this book.  Pegasus is just not that type of story, the main character, the princess Sylviaanel (Sylvi) is not that type of princess and the pegasi* in the novel are not pretty winged horses.

Anyone reading past the incongruous first line of the novel will discover that in addition to being about friendship and family, Pegasus is mostly a story about history and power, politics and culture clash.  The somewhat Catalogue of Ships-esque beginning, which recounts the history of Sylvi’s land and the treaty created between her ancestors and the pegasi, would be enough to turn off most readers who expect what the cover promises.   In truth, Pegasus is more like a YA version of The Left Hand of Darkness in its presentation of a human befriending a member of a different sentient species and attempting to understand and internalize a culture and mindset that is fundamentally different from their own.  A more appropriate cover might have shown Sylvi in her training garments, shortsword in hand, the main Pegasus, Ebon, at her shoulder with his intelligent eyes gazing out and wings half-raised in defense.

What makes human-pegasus connection in the novel difficult is the inability of the two species to properly communicate with each other.  With the exception of the human magicians and the pegasi shamans, few can understand more than a word or two in each other’s languages.  Although this is partly due to the incompatibility of the mostly telepathic and gesture-based pegasi language with human speech, it quickly becomes apparent that something else may be to blame.

In Pegasus, when royal humans turn 12 they are ceremonially and magically bound to one pegasus.  This binding is meant to both symbolically strengthen the alliance between the two species, and to allow the two individuals to converse slightly more effectively.  When Sylvi is presented with her bond-mate Ebon, the pair discovers that they can communicate fluently within their minds.  While one would expect this unprecedented discovery to be an instant blessing, the reality of the novel is much more complex.  The inability of the two species to communicate has completely shaped the humans’ culture, including the determination of which magicians receive the highest prestige as translators.  Sylvi and Ebon’s surprising talent is a threat to their species’ way of life and their friendship has immediate powerful opponents as a result.  With so much at stake both between the two species and within the human kingdom, the novel dances between ethnography and courtly intrigue, in some ways like a melding of Ellen Kusher’s adult fantasy novels and Patricia Wrede’s YA.  The result is unique among teen novels in a way that I found rather delightful, but which may also present challenges when it comes to finding the right readership.

The reason why this novel’s mis-match of cover to content needles me so badly is that it may keep potential new McKinley fans from ever picking Pegasus up.  Likewise, those individuals who do examine Pegasus based on what the cover promises may never read past the stumbling block of the history section the novel begins with.

All I can say is, I take solace in the fact that many teen readers are less put off by a bad cover than twenty and thirty-something booksellers are.

*Different sources I’ve encountered have suggested that the plural of Pegasus is either “Pegasus” or “Pegasuses” but McKinley uses the more elegant “Pegasi.”

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