I’ve been toying with the idea for this review for a time now. It’s such a small book, slim and unprepossessing in the face of all those bricks like Erikson or Tchaikovsky or even Hobb, forming literal walls on my shelves. And I’ve written two reviews of McKinley’s novels already. But The Hero and the Crown is a special book, and not just because it has won the Newbery Medal, awarded for “The most distinguished contribution to American literature for children”.
Don’t be misled by the “children”, in no aspect this is a childish book. I am quite irritated with the whole “genre” thing anyway, doubly so for fantasy and so called “children’s literature”, which, contrary to popular belief, is often more mature and artful than literature for grown-ups. But it’s a separate problem, one we’ve already mentioned here and we’ll probably tackle it more thoroughly another day.
The Hero and the Crown is often perceived as a prequel to Blue Sword. Correctly, because it takes place in the same place, only much earlier than Blue Sword, and, at the same time, incorrectly – because it deals with characters and events mentioned in Blue Sword only in the form of a legend.
It’s a story of Aerin Firehair, the only daughter of Arlbeth, King of Damar. And again, typical for Robin McKinley, it’s a coming-of-age story. Aerin is shy, quiet and not well liked; with her pale complexion and red hair she stands out in any crowd of dark-skinned Damarians. If not for her noble ancestry, she would probably have a very difficult life. As it is, she’s inconvenienced by the cruel gossip about her mother being an evil witch and her own, Aerin’s, illegitimacy. The last gossip’s source is Aerin’s apparent lack of the Gift, kelar – a hereditary form of magic, limited to the royal family. And it’s this gossip which almost costs Aerin her life, when, in the Sturm und Drang way of all adolescents around the world, she takes on a dangerous bet only to show that she belongs.
In the world of politics and subtle court wars Aerin feels useless and bored. In her almost complete solitude, shared only with an injured and slowly healing war-horse, she discovers the recipe for kenet – an ointment said to have fireproof properties. Armed with a sword and a healthy dose of home-made kenet Aerin starts her career as a dragon slayer. Small dragons, to be sure, not bigger than dogs, but still quite dangerous. Fighting one after another lets Aerin grow in experience and confidence – to the point of overconfidence, when she decides to do battle with Maur: the biggest and meanest of great dragons of old.
Sounds familiar? It should. The Hero and the Crown is a mash-up of many old, well known and worn elements. It is a retelling of a myth, just as Star Wars: New Hope, or Tolkien’s Sillmarillion. And yes, I have put those two in one sentence. It’s also refreshingly different –and I’m not talking only about having a female lead, although this also plays a role. McKinley’s fresh take on a myth of fulfilling one’s destiny involves a subtle play with its axioms: how do you go about growing into your prescribed role, how do you cope with the past and its despotic ways of limiting the choices you may have? An intertwining of fate and happenstance, of one’s own decisions and decisions made by others. It’s also a book about responsibility and personal happiness – and that they not always go together.
The Hero and the Crown is written in a deceptively simple language, where cadence and rhythm play an important role. McKinley puts great faith in simple words, and chooses them with utmost care. And it really works. I believe it was supposed to imitate the structure of stories told and retold, instead of written. However, it also reads really well, once you get used to it – which doesn’t take long. There are some very subtle, moving scenes, a bit of vivid, imagination-inducing descriptions, and quite a lot of action – as far as McKinley’s book go, of course. McKinley’s books are often themed – Rose Daughter is bursting with roses, Sunshine is full of sun, despite the darkness of the story, and so on. The theme for The Hero and the Crown is animals. They play a very important role, subordinate only to Aerin’s, really – I wouldn’t hesitate to name Talat the war-horse the second main character.
The more realistic parts, showing Aerin’s early life, are mixed with the fables about her various deeds as The Hero. And, for me, it’s the stitching between the two that shows signs of strain. It’s one thing to write realistically about the problems of growing-up, it’s quite another to write about terrible battles with all-powerful sorcerers, happening in other times or dimensions. McKinley chose simplicity and the main character’s point of view, but for me, immensely spoiled by Zelazny, Erikson, Tchaikovsky and many others, these scenes were slightly underwhelming and had the touch of Deus ex machina.
But that’s my only complaint about The Hero and the Crown – I really enjoyed this short (246 pages) book and I would equally like to read to my children and to pester my friends with it. It’s a shame that this book was never translated to Polish – I hope to see this situation remedied soon.