Thoughts on my third time reading this book aloud.
The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. Greenwillow Books, 1985. Aeryn is the sol, or princess, but not heir to the throne because her mother was a foreigner distrusted by the kingdom. That combined with her complete lack of the magical talent royalty of Damar are supposed to have has led to her being massively shy and lacking in self-esteem. Instead of mingling with the court, she sneaks off to rehabilitate her father’s old lame warhorse, Talat, as well as doing chemistry experiments to make a working recipe for kenet, a dragon-fire-proof salve. Dragons are dog-sized nuisances, so she’s being useful but not glorious by finding a way she can get good at killing them off single-handedly.
Until her father’s army rides off try to thwart a rebellion and the big dragon comes back. The dragon so big it dwarfs a warhorse, and whose fire is as much poison as flame.
Here is where I have long, rambling thoughts on the book.
Robin McKinley is one of my top favorite authors of all time. I turn to Beauty and Rose Daughter and, well, quite a number of her books when I’m in need of a comforting re-read. This book isn’t my favorite of hers, but still a favorite among books in general. I thought it would be a good entry point for my son, as Beauty has no battle scenes at all, and we spent several months reading it together over this summer and fall. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it to myself, but I do know that I previously read it aloud to my little brother (when he was a year or so older than my son) and to my love early in our relationship. It takes much more patience and love to read a novel aloud than it does to read it to myself or listen to the audiobook, and I find new things about it every time.
This book, it is like a close family member whom I love and yet am close enough to see the flaws in. It doesn’t particularly bother me that McKinley spends lots of time on court intrigue and chemistry before turning to dragon hunting – I like the meandering style, and didn’t notice a problem with the starting in the middle and then going back to the beginning when reading it to myself, both of these become worrisome when trying to explain it to my son, hoping that he’ll stay interested long enough to get to the dragon hunting. I could also wish that McKinley, like C.S. Lewis, timed her chapter breaks for convenient read-aloud sessions.
There’s also the romances – Aerin has two over the course of the book, kind of. I don’t feel any passion coming from Aerin about either of these – nowadays I do like to feel the romance, but as a middle grader and not-dating teen myself, this level was perfect. I knew she wasn’t missing out on romance because of all the wonderful adventures she was having, but the focus stayed solidly on the adventures. It doesn’t bother me that she has more than one love interest, though the romance with her first cousin is and always has been somewhat puzzling . There’s also an off-page sex scene – delicate enough that it wasn’t embarrassing either to me or to my son this time around.
The Hero and the Crown was the first fantasy book I read where the dominant culture of book wasn’t white European – hooray! The people of Damar are described as cinnamon-skinned brunettes. Aerin, though, is a pale and freckled red-head, who has trouble fitting in because of her looks. Well – maybe this is partly because of how Aerin is introduced in the published earlier, chronologically later book The Blue Sword – literally appearing in a fire with hair of flames. But it means that our main character still isn’t a person of color, which I find frustrating these days.
For all of its flaws, though, there is a lot that I love. McKinley is so good at characters and background, making Aerin and her world come to life. McKinley’s love for horses shines through (in every book she writes, really), so that Talat is just as real as any of the human characters. One might expect the story to end after Aerin slays the big dragon – but it doesn’t, and the pain of post-traumatic stress and her serious injuries are very real. Most of all, it’s a story of a marginalized woman stepping out of the narrow role that’s been assigned to her, making her own place – and saving her kingdom. That’s a story that is still sadly rare, 30 years after The Hero and the Crown first came out.
My son and I have now moved on to the next book of Damar, The Blue Sword, featuring another role-busting heroine and (so far, at least), a much more linear plot. I guess if you only wanted to read one epic-scale Robin McKinley book, you could read that one instead – but I wouldn’t.
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