The Hero and the Crown

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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.

Top Five Friday: Fairy Tale Retellings

I haven’t done a Top Five Friday post in a while – I’ve been too busy posting Pink recaps! But we just started Pink II on Wednesday, so Erin will be posting the first Pink II recap next Friday to give you time to read. In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about fairy tales.

My first exposure to fairy tales was Disney movies. I remember feeling very surprised when I learned that Cinderella wasn’t a creation of Walt Disney, and there were many versions of her story that came before the cartoon I loved (and who didn’t – those mice were adorable). My first fairy tale retelling was Ella Enchanted, and I’ve had a soft spot for them ever since.

So here is today’s Top Five Friday – my favorite novels based on fairy tales.

 goose girl The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale. I actually had never heard the story of the goose girl before this book. Ani is a princess who is sent by her mother to marry a prince from a kingdom far away. On the journey to her new home, her lady-in-waiting Selia stages a mutiny so that she can be presented as the princess when the group reaches their destination. Ani escapes and considers starting a new life somewhere else, but she feels responsible for the few servants and her beloved horse that she knows will be mistreated at Selia’s hands. Ani gets herself a job as a goose girl for the king and starts planning a rescue for her friends. This was a great story! Now I just need to get around to reading some of Shannon’s other books – there are three sequels to Goose Girl, and she has a Rapunzel series as well.
 bitter greens Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth. This is a retelling of the Rapunzel story, and it’s narrated through the eyes of three women. There is Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the first women to ever tell the story of Rapunzel. Then there is Margherita, who is kidnapped by a witch as repayment because her father stole a handful of parsley from the witch’s garden. And finally, there is the witch herself – Selena Leonelli, the infamous muse of the artist Tiziano who fears nothing in the world except the passage of time. I’ll admit, the first few chapters were slow going, but in the end, Kate weaves these stories together beautifully. If you like books where the villain gets to tell her version of events, I found this one particularly interesting.  Evidently, Kate is currently studying at a university in Sydney for a doctoral degree in fairy tale retelling, and this novel is part of her doctorate work. She’s currently writing a theoretical examination of Rapunzel. I need to go back to school, clearly. My major was not this cool.
cinder Cinder by Marissa Meyer. This is by far the weirdest fairy tale retelling I’ve come across, but it was incredibly compelling in a bizarre way. The story is Cinderella, but nothing like the way you’ve seen it before – our heroine, Cinder, is a cyborg. You read that correctly. In a futuristic world, Earth is in trouble. There is a new strain of plague that has no cure, there are conflicts between humans and cyborgs, and the Lunars (who live on the moon, led by their evil queen Levana) are just waiting for their moment to stage a hostile takeover of Earth. Cinder has her own problems to deal with, but she’s swept onto the big stage of events when she catches the eye of both Prince Kai and Queen Levana. And no one, not Cinder’s horrid stepmother or even Cinder herself, knows who Cinder really is. Again, weird and fascinating. I’ve read the sequel Scarlet (based on Red Riding Hood), but I haven’t had a chance to pick up the third in the series. I will get there eventually.
ella enchanted Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. Please, please don’t judge this book by its movie adaptation. This is another Cinderella retelling, although it’s for a much younger audience. When she is born, Ella is given the “gift” of obedience by a meddlesome fairy, but her gift turns out to be be a curse – she cannot ever refuse a direct command. As she grows up, Ella learns creative ways to prevent her stepmother from using her curse against her, but she eventually decides to track down the fairy to have the curse removed. There’s a glass slipper and a Prince Charmont, and I thought it was a fun retelling.
 beauty Beauty by Robin McKinley. Okay, I’m actually cheating on this one. I haven’t read it yet, but I have a copy and have been meaning to for at least two years. It’s a retelling of Beauty and the Beast (clearly), and Robin’s writing comes highly recommended by several of my favorite authors (including Lauren).

 

What are your favorite fairy tale stories?