Sylviianel is the daughter of the King. As for all her life, she has known that she will be bound to a Pegasus when she turns twelve. She is the only daughter of the King, and because she has three older brothers, she is used to thinking of herself as superfluous. Even her binding with a Pegasus isn't expected to change that, but when the time comes and she meets her new Royal Pegasus, Ebon, a handsome black Pegasus, both of them soon realize that the binding, which is intended to allow them to occasionally be able to read the gist of each other's thoughts and words, is far, far stronger in them than in any of the other human/Pegasi bonds. Not only can they understand each other, but they can actually hear what each other is thinking even *before* the binding Ceremony!
This angers the Chief Magician in charge of the Ceremony, Fthoom. Although Sylvi can't read his thoughts... indeed, he frightens her beyond belief, she has reason to think that it might be because only magicians are trained to become translators between bonded humans and their Pegasi, and Sylvi and Ebon being able to understand each other so clearly endangers the pre-eminent place that the magicians hold in human society, for as well as using their magic to protect the Kingdom, they are the only ones who can tell the humans what the Pegasi are saying. Indeed, Sylvi and Ebon felt that the binding ritual was not so much tying them together as trying to push them apart.
But that night, after the ceremony, Ebon comes to see Sylvi after everyone else has gone to sleep, and ignores all the restrictions that have been established between humans and Pegasi by touching her and offering to take her flying. The rules of human society are very strict on that regard- no touching and especially no flying, to protect the dignity and consequence of the Pegasi, but neither he nor Sylvi really care about that, and she is small and light enough that carrying her is no real problem for him. During their night flight over the Kingdom, and out beyond the wall that protects most of it from monsters that infest the land, they come to love and trust each other as few bonded "friends" ever manage to do.
The next day, Sylvie is summoned to a meeting of her father and Fthoom in a small audience chamber, and Fthoom, confident in his ability to sway people to his own way of thinking, claims that the bond between Sylvi and Ebon is not only a danger to the Kingdom, but to human-Pegasus relations and demands that the bond be dissolved. Once again, he frightens Sylvi, but this time, she leaps to her feet to defend her friendship with Ebon, as Fthoom gets so angry he almost- almost strikes her. This angers her father, along with Fthoom's using a glamour to try and influence everyone in the chamber, and he relieves Fthoom of his place at the head of the magicians and sets him a task to seek out tales and stories of human and Pegasus bonded partners who could speak to each other as Ebon and Sylvi do and to present his findings, no matter how long it may take.
Sylvi is very upset by what Fthoom tried to do, but it doesn't prevent her from continuing her friendship with Ebon, as well as their night flights. But while some people believe Fthoom was right, Sylvi, while continuing her studies, also goes out into the world to show people everywhere that there is nothing bad or wrong with her and Ebon's bond. She attends countless country celebrations, where Ebon allows the littlest humans to ride on his back for a bit and even answers questions put to him through Sylvi from people in the crowd- generally harmless ones about things like "What is your favorite color?" or some practical ones about farming- because his people plant crops of their own and know something about farming.
As Sylvie grows older, she is given more duties and responsibilities at the court, and spends it in research and gathering facts about rivers and streams in part of the Kingdom, to determine where dams and Bridges should be built. But this isn't anything she decides for herself, it's something pressed upon her by her father. Even so, Sylvi comes to enjoy it, and even ends up making a contribution to the healers of the Kingdom when she finds out that Pesasus healers have their own remedies which may be useful for humans as well.
Even so, her presence, and her ability to speak so clearly with Ebon, causes division in the ranks of the Magicians, some of whom still support Fthoom, and even in her own court, where some people still believe that Sylvie should not be able to understand Ebon so clearly. Even if Fthoom is still doing his researches... and finding nothing, Sylvi knows he won't rest until he takes his revenge on her and Ebon for what happened to him. But as her sixteenth birthday approaches, Sylvie is asked by the Pegasi to visit their own land of Rhiandoom, and she very much wants to go, to be an ambassador between her own people and the Pegasus, about whom so very little is known despite the humans being allied with them for over 800 years.
But while the human council argues over whether or not to allow it, Sylvi must deal with her own fears and wants. While she wants to visit Rhiandoom very much, it would also mean being the only human in that country for over three weeks, and Sylvi has never been on her own for that long before. And she's been comparing herself very unfavorably to Pegasi- how can they stand to look at someone so ugly and stunted compared to her? But when the council eventually votes to allow the visit- even though the country has lately been more plagued by attacks from monsters thought banished from the Kingdom, can Sylvi bear what she learns about the Pegasi and how they think? Or, for that matter, what her people's magic does to the Pegasi and their Shamans? Or will she find a new way of living for her people, one that will draw the humans and their Pegasus allies closer together and allow them to overcome the differences that separate their peoples? And what will happen when Fthoom finally has the information he needs to present his findings to the King and Court?
Robin McKinley is a magical writer. Once you start reading her stories, every word is chosen so well and fittingly that you are simply drawn into her stories and her worlds before you can blink. While most of her books are stand-alone works, which I expected this one to be, she also does sequels, and the ending of this one promises to have an excellent sequel- and very soon, I hope! I was drawn in by Sylvi and Ebon, by her world and Ebon's world of the Pegasi, which is so different from that of the humans, not only by how they live it, but also how they conceive the world to be. And also in their magic, which is very, very different from human magic.
I loved how traveling to Rhiandoom was like almost like being on a different plane of existence for Sylvi. Like the Shaman's journey in our world, other humans aren't going to understand the difference in the world unless they have had something like that experience as well. And those who haven't had the experience could use Sylvi's words against her to twist the meaning so that it would be something bad and threatening instead of simply different, as if she was speaking an entirely different language. And in a way, she is- it's hard for her to put her experiences in Rhiandoom into human words and concepts, and because of the danger of someone twisting her words like that, she doesn't even try. But even that cannot save her from some of the backlash of her trip into places no other human has seen or experienced.
My only disappointment in the book was how abruptly it ends, but that was also good, because it meant that Robin McKinley must be writing a sequel, and it's one I desperately want to read. This book is so beautiful that it seems lyrical and is utterly amazing to read. It actually feels wrenching when the book ends and you feel like, "That's it? I want to read more NOW!" And the sign of a good book is that it leaves you wanting more. And boy, did that book do this for me! In spades.
I completely loved this book, I honestly can't think of any problems it had or anything that I thought should have been better written or edited. Robin McKinley continues to impress me with her level of writing skill and I only wish she could write faster to get the sequel into my hands all the sooner- but I know her writing is worth waiting for. Highly recommended.