I recently followed up my reading of The Blue Sword with its prequel/companion, The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, another book for Once Upon a Time. The books are separated by a few centuries and feature (nearly) all different characters, so either could be read independently. I read them in publishing order, but I almost wish I had read them chronologically, as I think The Hero and the Crown provides more depth to The Blue Sword, more so than happens the other way around.
I enjoyed the book in a lot of ways, and I feel like I could see McKinley’s development as a writer even between these two books. There are strong characters, awesome magic, and really interesting dragons. And…there are problems. But I’ll get to that in a bit.
The Hero and the Crown focuses on characters who featured as legends in The Blue Sword, particularly Aerin. The daughter of the King of Damar and his foreign wife, Aerin is viewed with mistrust and disdain by her father’s court. She’s hot-tempered and impetuous, and strives to prove her worth by killing dragons–who in this world, are a kind of pest, like wild dogs or wolves. Bigger events surface when a Great Dragon comes out of the hills, and when war threatens with the demonic forces of the North.
I loved Aerin. She’s likable even when she charges into foolish actions, and I find myself so wanting her to come into her own. I love that even when she begins killing dragons (which seems like a traditional route to being a hero) she still has to struggle. I love how she gradually grows throughout the first half of the book, growing in her relationships with others and in her acceptance of herself. The one reason I’m glad I read The Blue Sword first is that I love having met her as a mythical figure, and now meeting her as a very real girl–it’s never as neat and simple as the myths.
Aerin is surrounded by solid characters as well, from her father who means well but doesn’t know what to do with his daughter; Tor, her dearest and sometimes only friend; Teka, her somewhat fussy nursemaid and surrogate mother; Galanna and Perlith, representatives of the hostile court.
The best character, though, is Talat, Aerin’s horse. Once the king’s warhorse, Talat was lamed in battle and put out to pasture. Aerin and Talat lean on each other to find their path, and form a beautiful bond. A-girl-and-her-horse is an oft-told tale, but this one is really lovely.
I touched on the dragons a bit already, and I just have to say that I love it that they’re not the big bad fearsome and impressive dragons of most stories. They’re about the size of dogs and treated like any other dangerous wild animal–but not as anything more impressive than that. In fact, in this country, there’s very little honor in killing dragons. The Great Dragons are more traditional, but most people consider them only myths…until one arrives, at least.
I don’t want to get into the second half of the book too much, to avoid spoilers, but I have to talk about it to discuss my chief problems with the book. There’s a clear shift about midway through, as Aerin begins to deal with forces on a larger stage. The plot shifts, and that’s fine–but I feel like the character shifts too, and that’s not.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact problem or exactly what was missing, but it feels like Aerin stops making decisions for herself. While she decided to fight dragons or to befriend Talat, later in the book it feels like she’s being moved around by circumstances. She goes to fight a magician because of a prophecy; she goes through a battle using a sword that seems to move on its own; she climbs endless, endless, endless stairs and never once thinks about turning around.
I wouldn’t say that Aerin behaves out of character in the later parts of the book–but I don’t get a sense of her anymore being an active force in her own path (which, in its own way, is out of character…) The actions she takes do make sense for her, but there’s a piece missing in the motivations behind the actions. And that, I find frustrating.
The second half also introduces a new romantic interest, which turned out to be the worst of both worlds. I didn’t hate that romance, but it never resonated with me either–and yet it was able to disrupt the development of the earlier romance which I had been enjoying.
I didn’t hate the entire second half of the book, by any means. It was actually still a pretty good story–but it was just a bit off too, and it didn’t live up to the brilliant first half.
I read a review by Memory on Stella Matutina that describes all of this very well and raises some excellent points, if you want to explore the subject further.
I have to wonder if McKinley herself may have realized the issue here. I’m reminded very much of Rose Daughter, one of her later books. The heroine is also being pushed around by prophecies and expectations and even the usual format of “Beauty and the Beast”–but she ultimately makes decisions that turn everything on its head. Choice is very heavily emphasized…so perhaps McKinley knows what happened in The Hero and the Crown.
There’s about half of a really amazing book here–and then a pretty good second half. So in the end I do recommend it, but I wish I could recommend it more whole-heartedly!
Author’s Site: http://www.robinmckinley.com/
Buy it here: The Hero and the Crown