I have come across Robin McKinley’s name on several occasions on lists of books I would or should like – several of her fairy tale retellings have been on my TBR list for years. Open Road Integrated Media has released several of her older books in e-book format, and I had the chance to read a copy of The Hero and the Crown from NetGalley. I felt a special connection to this book because it won a Newbery Medal the year I was born. It’s a prequel to her novel The Blue Sword.
In the kingdom of Damar, Aerin is a princess, but she is not exactly a beloved one. It’s whispered that Aerin’s mother, who may or may not have been a witch, killed herself in despair when she gave birth to a daughter rather than a son. In Damar, all royalty are supposed to have a Gift (kelar) they can display which marks them as special. While everyone else in her family can use their Gift without struggle, Aerin has never developed hers. Aerin spends her childhood trying to be invisible, preferring the company of her father’s retired warhorse Talat to her peers or subjects. She becomes fixated on learning sword fighting skills and perfecting a recipe for an ointment that will keep her safe from dragon fire so that she can slay dragons. The trouble is, in Damar, dragons are more like vermin than ferocious beasts from legend, and killing them is far from a noble pastime. Aerin’s talents for dragon-killing are scorned rather than appreciated.
Suspicion grows in Damar that the hero’s crown, lost for years, has fallen into the hands of the unruly Northerners. Aerin’s father, her cousins, and their army ride out to negotiate with the Northerners, and word comes to them too late that Maur, one of the last great dragons left in the world, is attacking a nearby village. Aerin is the only one on hand to help the villagers fight Maur, and though she kills the dragon, she pays a heavy price. Maur’s death sets off a chain of events that will cause Aerin to leave home seeking healing, the truth about her family and her destiny, and the hero’s crown.
Aerin is the archetypal hero who doesn’t understand her own worth. She’s used to being the butt of everyone’s jokes and having her efforts be under-appreciated. People in Damar think she’s crazy, and they speculate about whether or not she’s even legitimate – but she doesn’t hesitate to do them a service (like killing their dragons) when she can. She doesn’t do it out of any sense of obligation to the people – it’s just something that can be done and something that she’s capable of doing. Aerin can be stubborn to the point where you want to shake her, but you have to admire a girl with her level of perseverance. It’s one of the things that saves her life in the end.
The first half of the story reminded me of a traditional fairy tale, as we learn about Aerin’s childhood and her determination to do something useful. The second half flew by, and I will confess to being a bit lost at times. I think if I had read The Blue Sword, I would understand a bit more about the world McKinley has created for these books and some of her mythology. It was interesting enough that I do plan to read more of this series eventually, and I do really enjoy her writing style. I think my next book of hers will either be Beauty or Spindle’s End.