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Old Favorite, New Genre: Exploring Fantasy Sub-genres Through Robin McKinley’s Work

photo by flickr user RC Designer

Although I like to read a wide range of books, I always take a while to get into something new— which makes me a regular re-reader of old favorite books and authors. It’s always nice for me when an author I love writes a new series or in a new style, because it makes me more likely to try it out– and in the case of genres, once I find one book I like, I’m likely to try others. I’m naturally a fantasy or historical fiction reader, but Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series got me to like mysteries, enough that I tried Ian Rankin and grande dame Agatha Cristie.

Of course, the big genres like fantasy have sprouted a whole bunch of sub-genres, and there are tons of fantasy sub-genres that I haven’t fully explored. Luckily, one of my favorite authors, Robin McKinley, has written in a wide variety of fantasy sub-genres. Even better, she’s got a new book, Shadows, just out two weeks ago that will hopefully entice me to give another go to what she refers to on her blog as her “alt modern” style.

Here’s my guide to exploring fantasy sub-genres through the works of Robin McKinley:

Fairy Tale Retellings

Many authors like to start with a well-known fairy tale or folktale and give it their own unique twist. Robin McKinley has done this with a number of fairy tales, often resulting in heroines who are a little more proactive than the original tale suggests.

beauty mckinley coverBeauty
This retelling of Beauty and the Beast has gotten attention on The Hub before, at least in part because it’s been listed on YALSA’s Ultimate Teen Bookshelf. This was the first Robin McKinley book I read, so it’s always going to be one of my favorites– but I think it has appeal for anyone who likes fairy tales, plus it was one of the earlier fantasy novels to feature a strong female protagonist. Incidentally, McKinley has written another retelling of Beauty and the Beast, Rose Daughter. Although the retellings are very different, they both have a “fairy tale world” feel.

Spindle’s End
While Beauty fleshes out the story of Beauty and the Beast, Spindle’s End almost seems to take apart and reweave the story of Sleeping Beauty. All the traditional elements are there (the christening, the angry fairy, the spindle, the briar hedge), but there’s also talking to animals, blacksmithing, and a strong friendship. If you think you know how the tale ends, keep your eyes open for a twist!

High Fantasy

In addition to retelling traditional stories, McKinley has written a number of original stories that might be considered “high fantasy.” When I think of high fantasy, I think of worlds that contain magic, but that otherwise seem old fashioned… maybe people travel by horseback instead of car, or they still have to grow most of their own food, for example.

McKinley’s best-known high fantasy works are her Damar books: The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown, largely because the second book won the 1985 Newbery Medal. They aren’t the only great high fantasy McKinley’s done though. Consider trying one of the following:

Imagine your country falling apart, and finding out that you have just been chosen to be one of the ruler’s top advisors in putting it back together. That’s essentially what happens to Mirasol, the protagonist of Chalice. Of course, instead of the everyday coup d’etat, she has to deal with the new ruler being a Priest of Fire whose touch can burn to the bone… and her career before this new job was in beekeeping.

Those who like series will be happy to discover Pegasus, if they can stand a little waiting… it’s the first in a trilogy, and the second installment is currently set to come out in 2014. Sylvi is a princess in a country that has an alliance with pegasi, and so she is assigned one pegasus to be her counterpart. What she doesn’t expect is being able to talk to her pegasus, Ebon. An unlikely friendship develops that will affect the future of both peoples.

Alt Modern

The books that fall in this category feel like they could be happening in the present day, probably in the United States, except for a few major differences. Maybe magic is an accepted part of life or creatures we think of as imaginary really exist. McKinley introduces the rules of whichever world she builds organically, so it doesn’t take too long to figure out what makes these stories alternate modern tales.


Sunshine (a 2005 Best Books for Young Adults selection)
Before the Twilight craze, Sunshine tells the story of a young baker who ends up in an unlikely alliance with a vampire. This story feels more urban to me than many of McKinley’s others, and I am looking forward to comparing Shadows to it.

Unlike Sunshine, Dragonhaven is modern but rural… very rural– as in, middle-of-the-wilderness-in-a-restricted-national-park rural. Jake has grown up in Smokehill National Park, but neither he nor anyone else has ever had close contact with real dragons… until he stumbles across a dying mother dragon and automatically saves the only surviving baby.

In addition to her books, McKinley has been writing a serialized story on her blog called “Kes,” which also falls in the alt modern subgenre.

Who are some authors that have introduced you to diverse stories? What are some genres you want to explore more?

-Libby Gorman, currently reading Shadows by Robin McKinley


  1. Lorena Lorena

    Robin McKinley’s “Sunshine” is by far one of my favorite vampire stories out there (and, incidentally, the first of McKinley’s works that I’ve read), so I’ll definitely check out “Shadows.” Thanks for the round-up — I’ve got a lot more books to add to my to-read list!

  2. Kate Y. Kate Y.

    I enjoyed reading this post! Robin McKinley is a longtime favorite of mine, and I have been eagerly awaiting the next volume of Pegasus ever since reading the first a few days after it came out back in Nov. 2010. The events in the story had me in such an intense place when I came to the last page of the book that I was crying and wailing at RM’s website (2012? 2014? what do you mean?!?) …*ahem* I had not heard that there will be not one but two more volumes. I devoutly hope a listing with an accurate pub. date goes up on Amazon soon so I can begin counting down the months. In the meantime I know I should stop sulking and read Shadows – did you enjoy it? I also have not read Kes, I should give the beginning a try.

    • Libby Gorman Libby Gorman

      Glad to hear it! Yes, I loved Shadows, although it very firmly fits into that “alt-modern” sub genre, so if you are feeling the need for a high fantasy, it might not be the perfect fit. One of the things I like about following McKinley’s blog is that you get some picture of the angst of book deadlines and trying to get muses (or as she puts it, “The Story Council”) to cooperate with the publishing business–Pegasus being a case in point, because I don’t think she realized it would be in two parts until largely through the first book, and definitely didn’t realize it would be a trilogy story until she’d gotten well into trying to finish book #2. Hence the changing pub dates…I hope Shadows and Kes can tide you over until the other Pegasus books come out!

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