Author: Robin McKinley
Published: January 1985
As an adolescent I remember being so frustrated that the only ones who got to have adventures in books were boys. The boys explored caves, rafted down the Mississippi, tamed wild stallions, climbed the Alps and piloted submarines. Meanwhile the girls either stayed at home stitching their samplers and drinking their tea or - if occasionally they came along on one of those adventures, their role was to do stupid things that would give the males opportunities to rescue them. Oh, and a girl could rip a bit off her petticoat to bind up the hero’s wounds too.
So The Hero and the Crown burst upon me like a supernova. I didn’t discover Robin McKinley until I was an adult - well let’s face it, she’s younger than me, so she couldn’t very well have been writing books for me to read during my childhood. Where was I? Oh yes ... The Hero and the Crown burst upon me like the Marines hitting the beaches of Normandy . As soon as I got a little way into it, it was clear that this, this book is the one I had been wanting to read all those years.
The main character in The Hero and the Crown is named Aerin, and Aerin wears petticoats only under strong duress. And the only time she binds up any wounds, they are her own - no male being conveniently at hand to do it for her.
In Robin McKinley’s 1983 novel, The Blue Sword , there are references to Aerin who was a giant figure from Damar’s past. In The Hero and the Crown , McKinley goes back in time several hundred years to tell us the story of Aerin.
Aerin is the daughter of the King of Damar, but from most people’s perspective she is very unsatisfactory. Damar’s ruling family possess a variety of magical powers which set them apart from the common people and make it possible for them to lead their country’s defense against the inimical magical forces of the North. Her father’s first wife died and he then married a highly inappropriate woman - a woman rumored to be a witch, and furthermore from the North - the source of all their problems. And though this woman died when Aerin was born, Aerin’s own appearance, so like her mother’s, is a daily reminder of her otherness, for in a country of dark-haired, cinnamon-skinned people, Aerin has blazing red hair and pale skin. And she has none of the royal magic powers which the king’s daughter ought to have. She can’t even magically mend dishes if she accidentally breaks them or open a magically locked door.
Times are bad and getting worse. The Northerners are raiding into Damar more and more often. They need a hero, they needed a king’s son with strong Gifts, and instead they got - Aerin. But Aerin, despite her Giftlessness, is unwilling to hide in corners and meekly accept herself as substandard. She’s trying. She’s doing as much as she can to fill her role in spite of her lack of Gifts.
Some have said that this is a coming of age book, and I guess it is. We see Aerin growing from an adolescent with a bad self-image into a strong, competent woman, a powerful woman. And she has a lot to overcome. But it is also an extraordinary adventure tale, full of courage and danger, overwhelming obstacles, kindness and unkindness, hopeless causes and help arriving from unexpected directions. Although it has won awards, don’t read it because it’s literature; read it because it’s so much fun.
I don’t want to tell you more, because I don’t want to ruin the story for you, but just let me say that I taught this book to seventh graders for a few years and both the boys and the girls liked it. In spite of the female heroine, I think you guys will like it as well.
The Hero and the Crown has won the following honors:
Winner of the 1985 Newbery Medal
An ALA Notable Book
An ALA Best Book for Young Adults
I said this in my review of The Blue Sword , but it bears repeating here: This isn’t just a children’s book. People of all ages will enjoy it. Also, though this story takes place before the events in The Blue Sword, I would encourage you to read these two books in the order they were written, The Blue Sword first, and then The Hero and the Crown .
Now let me share what some reviewers have said about The Hero and the Crown:
Vibrant, witty, compelling, the story
is the stuff of which true
dreams are made.
-The Horn Book
A work of considerable imaginative power.
McKinley knows her geography
of fantasy, the nuances of language,
the atmosphere of magic...
an utterly engrossing fantasy
-New York Times
Splendid high fantasy... filled with
tender moments, good characters, satisfying
action and sparkling dialogue... superb!
-School Library Journal , starred review