The Hero and the Crown
By Robin McKinley
Paperback, 246 pages
2000, Puffin Books
Aerin struggles to find her place in her father’s court. After digging through old tomes and finding what she believes is a recipe for a fireproof salve, Aerin decides to test her tincture in battle with a dragon. After her success, she begins to make a name for herself as a dragon slayer and proves valuable to the court. But when an ancient dragon wakes, Aerin finds herself in over her head. Dragon slaying leads her to a battle against and even greater evil, with the kingdom she knows and the lives of those she loves at stake.
Yo, where has this book been all my life? Oh, I know; on my shelves for at least 9 years! [x_x I waited far too long to read this book – though I suspect from the cracked spine and lipstick prints on the inside of the back cover (don’t ask, there’s no reasonable explanation) that Middle School Milliebot did read this book and Adult Millie has completely forgotten it. Regardless, it was fabulous!
If all YA books were written by McKinley, or in the spirit of this book, I’d actually be a fan of the genre! Originally written in 1984, The Hero and the Crown truly stands the test of time and is now my new standard for judging YA fantasy.
Aerin is a great character – determined, intelligent, caring, socially awkward and not impervious to bouts of self-doubt and definitely not above getting beat down. She’s by no means a special snowflake. Rather than be told about how amazing and special Aerin is, she proves she’s tough by actually being tough! She has to learn her lessons through hard work and determination and she develops her riding, swordplay, and herbalism skills by working relentlessly at them. She falls, many times, and continues to get up, though sometimes more slowly than others. Here’s a heroine who gets her ass handed to her in battle on more than one occasion, rather than just strolling onto the scene and defeating everyone effortlessly.
I also loved that while she’s generally viewed as an outcast at her father – the king’s – court, she’s not completely isolated. She has her loyal caretaker, Teka, her supportive cousin, Tor, and her trusty and intelligent steed, Talat. I just realized now that everyone’s name starts with T…anyway! Aerin’s relationship with her father is more awkward than strained – it’s clear he loves her, he’s just not sure what to do with her. But he doesn’t try to prevent her from adventuring off and slaying dragons.
I appreciated that Aerin falls somewhere in the middle of the ‘completely isolated and unloved heroine who must defeat all odds and save the day’ and ‘ultra-special sexy snowflake chosen one heroine who must save the day’ scale. She’s a true underdog who’s easy to root for.
The beginning of the book was slightly confusing for me though. There are several flashbacks to how Aerin trained Talat, ate some drug leaves and took a bad trip, and developed her fireproof salve. For a while, I didn’t understand that those scenes weren’t ‘the present.’ This wasn’t a major issue because I still loved everything I was reading, but just something I figured I’d point out.
There is a smidgen of romance in this book, so if that’s important to you in a YA novel, fear not! It might even be classified as a love triangle, though it’s not nearly as tropey as today’s fare. I don’t want to spoil anything, but rest assured, there’s no insta-love and Aerin doesn’t spend the majority of the book worrying over which man she’ll choose. I really appreciated how her two love interests were handled. There’s also implied sexual content, though it’s very light, so nothing to worry about if you don’t really care for sex in your romance or fantasy.
This is just an all-around fabulous book. I love the characters, I love Aerin’s journey, both plotwise and emotionally, and there are dragons and magic! This is a great take on the ‘hero’s quest’ trope and one I should have picked up much sooner. I have several of McKinley’s books on my shelves and I can’t wait to read them all!
I recommend this for:
+ Those of you looking for a YA that focuses on plot and character development, not love triangles
+ Fans of characters who actually earn their skills and fight for their place in the world
+ Anyone looking for a low-key fantasy that still has dragons and magical items of lore, but is light on the world building and magic system
+ Everyone – just read it, please