Aerin cannot remember a time when she did not know the story. The tale of how her mother, a witchwoman from the north, had ensorcelled her father, the king, and bewitched him into marrying her so that she could bear a son to inherit the kingdom. When Aerin was born, her mother turned her face to the wall, and died of grief. Rejected by many of the royal court for her suspect lineage, and feared by the average person for the same reason, Aerin struggles to find her place in the court, and to fulfill the destiny she can feel guiding her.
A beautifully written, lyrical fairy tale, The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley is a prequel to The Blue Sword, and tells the history of one of the progenitors of Harimad-Sol, the heroine of that tale. Aerin, a mistrusted princess, wants to find some meaning to her life, and sets out to learn how to fight the little dragons that infest the countryside. This leads her to a life of adventure, and to fulfill her destiny as the only one who can defeat the new menace from the north.
There is not a lot of dialog in The Hero and the Crown. Rather, characters are revealed through their actions, and much of the book is spent with Aerin alone. What we witness, then, is the evolution of a young girl into a warrior, and into something not quite human. Time is fluid in this novel. Sometimes, months are covered in the space of a few pages, while other times the same amount of words are dedicated to the actions of a few minutes. While this can be distracting at times, it serves its purpose to make the book feel almost documentary in nature, capturing the life of one of Damar’s legends.
Robin McKinley is one of my favorite writers for her ability to make reality disappear. Her prose can make entire worlds leap off the page with full detail. The battle scenes are a visceral combination of anguish, despair and resolution that leave the reader engrossed in a magical world of wonder and terror. My one criticism is that I would have liked to see more time dedicated to the relationship that develops between Aerin and Luthe. For as central as this relationship is to Aerin’s development, it felt rushed and superficial.
This Newbery Award winner is a classic YA novel that I have read several times. It has aged well, and is as engaging the eighth time as it is the first. I recommend this short novel for all readers of fantasy, not just the young adults that make up its target audience.
As I’ve mentioned in some of my other reviews, I have an odd relationship with Robin McKinley’s novels. It’s not exactly a “love/hate” kind of thing, more like… well, have you ever been in writing class and one of your peers reads out a passage from their novel and the rest of the class gasps and applauds and you’re just sitting there thinking…”really?”
It’s not that I don’t recognize that McKinley is talented writer: her characterization is solid, her plots are carefully constructed (though a bit too predictable in some cases) and she knows how to spin a nice turn-of-phrase. Everyone else raves about her, she’s won a number of awards and she’s well-respected within the writing community. But for whatever reason, her novels just don’t resonate with me on an emotional level. I still can’t pin-point why exactly, and I doubt anyone else really cares, but that doesn’t change the fact that I WANT to like her body of work. The bandwagon is a fun place to be, and I’ve always felt that I was missing out.
And my verdict? It was good. I liked it.
Aerin is the daughter of the king of Damar, but is hardly popular among her own people. Her mother was not only her father’s second wife, but a mysterious woman from the north (which has long-since posed a danger to her country) who was believed to be a witch-woman. As such, Aerin has grown up in a life of privilege but also loneliness, with only her cousin Tor as her friend and confidant.
What she needs is a purpose in life, one she discovers first in healing and retraining her father’s injured war-horse Talat, and second in experimenting with an old recipe said to produce an ointment that protects against fire. Having mastered both horse and ointment, Aerin comes to a fairly obvious conclusion with what to do with them: fight dragons.
For a long time Damar’s borders have been plagued by small dragons, and Aerin takes it upon herself to accept commissions from outlying villages in need of a dragon-slayer. But there are larger forces at work in the world: threats from the north and rumours that the terrible Black Dragon Maur is waking up. Enemies are closing in on Damar, and with the long-ago loss of the Hero’s Crown, a relic believed to protect the kingdom against any threat, Aerin knows the land is vulnerable.
In a story that’s spread out over several years, the plot draws together Aerin’s dragon slaying, her mother’s mysterious heritage and her eventual quest for psychological healing after an event that leaves her with what’s best described as magical PTSD in order to have Aerin eventually challenge the evil lurking behind Damar’s troubles. There are a number of climaxes throughout the book’s length as well as a drawn-out resolution and a couple of dangling plot-threads, which all manage to work in the book’s favour, giving the story a sense of depth and realism.
There are some nice human touches: Aerin initially takes up dragon-slaying as a way of finding acceptance, only to find that it only ostracizes her further. Her isolation throughout the first half of the book is palpable, and her determination in the second admirable. There is a love triangle that isn’t tedious, and is instead handled with subtlety and a unique twist. McKinley adheres closely to the “show, don’t tell” rule, letting the inner feelings of characters reveal themselves through actions rather than spelling them out to the reader.
I also enjoyed the world-building, as it paints a fairly vivid picture of time and place without going overboard into describing every minor detail — instead we’re given just enough to get a clear picture of Damar’s inhabitants, customs and landscape, whilst still leaving plenty to the imagination. Though it took a while for me to fully grasp, it was also nice to have a country that isn’t “white medieval Europe”, but has more of an Eastern flavor in regards to skin-tone, geography and dialect.
Perhaps most notable is the book’s use of dragons. In recent years there have been an influx of friendly, talkative and/or pet-like dragons who accept human passengers, but these ones are dark, malevolent and dangerous — even after death. At one point Aerin has to kill a litter of baby dragons, but far from having her heart melted by their helplessness, she goes ahead with the slaughter, grimly telling herself that in a few years they’ll grow into a threat to her homeland.
I found that Aerin’s defeat of her enemy (not specifying who for spoiler reasons) was a little strange and unexplained, and there’s at least one MacGuffin/Chekhov’s Gun that isn’t used in a particularly satisfying way, but Aerin is a worthy, likeable, three-dimensional heroine whose physical strength is downplayed in favour of her perseverance and bravery.
So there you have it: a novel by Robin McKinley that I… liked. Yeah, I’m still not effusive with praise, which means that I’m still missing out on whatever it is that my fellow readers find so appealing about her writing, but I finally feel as though I’m on the same wavelength. It’s an exciting and poignant read, a rare YA fantasy novel that manages to be self-contained, and has a great female protagonist and memorable, bittersweet ending.