A Tunnel in the Sky

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by Robin McKinley

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted December 6, 2023

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I come to the end of my exploration of Grand Master Robin McKinley's work, for this year at least. Shadows, the last of her fiction to be published, ten years ago, is the tenth novel I have read, along with two story collections. It has several things in common with Sunshine (my favorite), the most evident being the first-person narration, although the main character here is younger, seventeen; Margaret Alastrina (no last name revealed, or if it was I missed it). Maggie to most, but also Magdag to her best friend Jill, a nickname that would take on significance later. She lives with her widowed mother and brother Ran (Randal) in Station. No state mentioned either, but it wouldn't matter because this is also like Sunshine in being a secondary world fantasy. The country is known as Newworld, with others around the globe being Oldword, Midworld, Farworld, and the Southworlds. If these have any relation to our reality then I would say Oldworld is Eastern Europe, with several countries known as the Slav Commonwealth. Farworld maybe Japan and China. I'm not sure about Midworld, but perhaps Western Europe.

Another thing this has in common with Sunshine is the existence of magic, although it has been suppressed in Newworld. Several generations prior to the main action, Newworld officials, along with the medical corporation Genecore, mandated that magical genes had to be snipped from the DNA of anyone whose ancestors had been witches or magicians. Some of them may have hidden or otherwise escaped that procedure. Or the procedure was not as effective as they had hoped. Oldworld regulated magic, but not as severely as Newworld. Maggie's mother, Elaine, has a new boyfriend, later husband. Val (Valadi Crudon) was an emigrant from Orzaskan, a Slav Commonwealth country. Maggie took an instant dislike of him, mainly because of something no one else seemed to see about him. The Shadows. Even Val wasn't aware of the Shadows, although he later could see them, or at least sense them, and he knew what they were. Gruuaa. I won't attempt to explain them.

Other elements push this story closer to science fiction. Newworld has militarized its anti-magic forces into the Watchguard and the Overwatch. Almost everyone acknowledges it is necessary, since there have been incursions from alternate dimensions, or at least that is what is assumed about the cobeys. Cobey, a slang term for a CB, a cohesion break. There are anti-cobey boxes as ubiquitous as fire hydrants in our world. They are supposed to scan for and sense an upcoming cohesion break. Other tech scans people to determine if they still have any magical genes, which they absolutely are not supposed to have. Not just magic though. Another commonality with Sunshine is the existence of other-worldly creatures, but the only one that appears in the narrative is a werewolf. Maggie later learns of quite a few others that have retained some magical ability, hidden from the scans. But for how long? Jill is a foreseer, and woe be unto anyone who disregards her premonitions. There is no telling how many other gifted people there are, just in and around Station, or how their abilities have remained hidden. Including Maggie, who until just a few days before the major crisis arrives, had no idea what her powers might be.

Unfortunately, several things don't make a lot of sense, the first being how Maggie missed the signs within her own family. Also, why Val was allowed into the country. He was a magician, at least formerly a magician. He later tells Elaine and Maggie that his government had somehow neutralized his magic, and authorized him to come to Newworld. Not only a magician, but a very famous one, known to another emigrant from another Slav country. Maggie meets Casamir at his place of employment, their favorite pizza restaurant. Cas is very handsome, and Maggie has an instant crush on him, and it seems the feeling is mutual. When he learns that Val is her stepfather he cannot believe he could be in Newworld. Then again, Casamir has magical abilities too, so how did he get in? Based on some later events, I suppose both Val and Casamir, and who knows how many others, were allowed into Newworld because some in Overwatch were actually magicians, working to reverse the anti-magic forces. But there is nothing in the text to suggest that was McKinley's intention. Another standalone novel that leaves a lot of threads hanging, but ten years without a sequel, so the reader is free to imagine Maggie and Newworld's future on their own. Maggie's future includes a new boyfriend, but it is not Casamir.

Shadows was a finalist for a Mythopoeic Award for children's literature. Amazon suggests it is for age 12 and up, but I would say a bit older, or a very mature 12, or maybe that is just my Oldworld view of things.


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Robin McKinley

September 26, 2013

Finalist for:

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