Have you ever read a book about which you have almost entirely mixed feelings? The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley is one of those books for me. On one hand, I absolutely loved it, and there were many times during my reading of it that I thought, “Wow. This will definitely make my top picks of the year list” or “I haven’t enjoyed a book as much as I’m enjoying this one since I can’t remember when.” However, there were other points at the story that totally left me scratching my head and even gave me an unpleasant feeling at times. I think I can attribute the negativity to my unfamiliarity and discomfort with the whole genre of fantasy, although it’s definitely one I’ve been slowly warming up to over the years. (Ten years ago, the only fantasy I had ever really read was Narnia and A Wrinkle in Time. Now I can add quite a few more titles to the list, though most of those are children’s novels, too.) This book has an unlikely heroine, Aerin, who is the daughter of the King of Damar. The Damarians do not like her much, for she is decidedly not their idea of a royal. She doesn’t look like them, with her pale skin and red hair. She doesn’t act like them, or more exactly like anyone else from the royal house, because she has no obvious gifting that those of the royal house grow into at some point, usally during adolescence. What’s worse, her deceased mother’s background is suspect; most Damarians consider her a Northern witchwoman who bewitched the king to no good end for the kingdom. The novel opens with Aerin just sort of existing in the castle, with only her cousin (?) Tor for a friend. There’s a complicated sort of pecking order among the royals that determines who is a Sol, or next in line to the throne, and Tor (along with Aerin, really, though no one wants to admit it) is first Sol. The first part of the novel seems almost Medieval and just altogether lovely, with plenty of poingnancy and heart and feeling, with Aerin’s clumsiness and discomfort and angst over her place in the kingdom giving the reader plenty of reasons to love and identify with her. A turn happens in the story once Aerin begins experimenting with a recipe to make a dragon-proofing salve and finally hits upon the winning combination of ingredients. She then becomes a heroine in her own right and finally quests for the missing crown that will restore Damar to its former strength. All of Aerin’s heroic feats, which are described in pretty intense detail, very fully put this story into the realm of fantasy. It’s this part of the story that I found difficult–to follow, yes, but even to like (at times). Again, I’m pretty sure this says more about me as a reader than about the book itself.
This book is definitely on the old end of the age range for Newbery titles. The Newbery criteria for the age range of the winning books are as follows:
A “contribution to American literature for children” shall be a book for which children are an intended potential audience. The book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations. Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen, and books for this entire age range are to be considered.
There’s a very mature love affair or two in this story (including a weird love triangle of sorts), and even a few pointed references to s**. There’s nothing at all graphic in this part; it’s just a few references. However, there’s definitely an understanding of the way things work in the adult world. Of course, all of this mature understanding of the world is one of the things that made this book enjoyable to me. I’m pretty sure the mileage this book would get among the intended audience would vary greatly depending on the children.
This one’s definitely a mixed bag for me. Robin McKinley creates a very poignant tale with a very flawed but likable heroine. I marked more passages than I could ever share here (or than anyone would ever want to read!), but this one is very representative of both McKinley’s style and what makes me like Aerin so much:
She had almost enough of the herb she had been worrying about. After dithering awhile and muttering to herself she decided to go ahead and make as much ointment as she had ingredients for, and fetch more tomorrow. It was a messy business, and her mind would keep jumping away from the necessary meticulousness; and she knocked over a pile of axe handles and was too impatient to pile them up again and so spent several hours tripping over them and stubbing her toes and using language she had picked up while listening to the sofor, and the thotor, who were even more colorful. One she was hopping around on one foot and yelling epithets when her other foot was knocked out from under her as well by a treacherous rear assault from a fresh brigade of rolling lumber, and she fell and bit her tongue. This chastened her sufficiently that she finished her task without further incident. (75)
If it just weren’t such a fantasy novel! 😉 Truly, this book contains lots of strong characters and the initial set-up goes a long way in depicting what heroism really is. It’s just a little bit weird for my taste. Still, a Highly Recommended for the right adult or teen who likes this sort of thing. (Greenwillow, 1984)