Like Emma Bull and Will Shetterly, Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson are one of the best husband and wife writing couples that one could have the pleasure to encounter. Each is an accomplished writer, so one would expect a collection of tales by them would be a sterling affair, eh? Well, it is -- sort of. (Now, if you are a young fan of either author, please read me review before getting upset. I, for the most part, love what both of these authors have written. I adore her Outlaws of Sherwood, and his trilogy, The Changes, is a wonderful quest adventure. I even like his somewhat silly undertaking, Time and the Clockmice. That doesn't mean I like everything that they've done! If you're still upset, e-mail me and we'll discuss this review over an oversized mug of cocoa complete with marshmallows.) But before I discuss why this disappoints me slightly, let me tell you what's in it.
There are but six tales here. McKinley lets the heart reign in all three of her contributions: one young woman braves an ancient curse and falls in love with 'The Sea-King's Son' despite dire warnings not to do so; another strong female character discovers her own powerful but quiet kind of magic to defeat a giant, wildly destructive 'Water Horse;' and a third heroine dreams of Damar, the setting of McKinley's The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown, then finds a way to travel there, escaping her own cursed reality, in 'A Pool in the Desert.' In Dickinson's tales, which are darker in tone but not as well-written, a 'Mermaid Song' helps an seriously abused child to escape her violent father; a severely injured ferryman, caught in a struggle between factions of gods, battles an immense 'Sea Serpent'; and a mer-princess catches they eye of an immortal while helping to save human lovers from drowning at the hands of a 'Kraken' from the deeps.
I hear you, me young reader, saying that this sounds splendid, so why should I find these tales less than satisfying? How's your cocoa? Fine? Comfy in your seat? Good. No sharp objects to throw at me? Very good. Everything in Water: Tales of Elemental Spirits that Robin, bless 'er, wrote is splendid. She writes narratives that are so good that you feel that you are there. Nothing I've read by her in any form was less than superb. Each of the tales she has here, 'The sea-King's Son,' 'Water Horse' and 'A Pool in the Desert' -- all at 'round fifty pages -- begs, nay, demands, to be reread right now. They'd make splendid chapbooks with illustrations by Charles Vess or the like! So we both agree that Robin can do wrong, eh? Very good. Shall I freshen your cocoa?
Now here's the problem. (I'm an adult. We look for problems. Even Peter Pan had to grow up eventually. As will you.) If my first encounter with Peter had been these tales, I'd never have read anything else by him. These tales have no life in them at all. I'd like to be kind, but I can't be. It feels as if Peter wrote these simply to be paid, and paid by the word to boot. I won't bore you with the details of why I didn't like them save to say that I found them colourless, repetitive, and just plain awful. Yes, I know -- Booklist, Library School Journal, Publishers Weekly, even the Horn Book loved all of these tales. And all your school chums did too, didn't they?
Well, I didn't. So there. Now drink down your cocoa before it gets cold.