The Hero and the Crown

by Robin McKinley

Cover image

Series: Damar #2
Publisher: Berkley
Copyright: 1984
Printing: March 1986
Format: Mass market
Pages: 227

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I suspect that once again I've read the books of a series out of the preferred order. The Hero and the Crown is a prequel to The Blue Sword, and the latter was published first. I started with this book because I was told it "came before" the other, but I suspect the better reading order is publication order. Once I read The Blue Sword, I'll offer a recommendation.

The Hero and the Crown is the story of Aerin, the daughter of the king of Damar. She was the daughter of the king's second wife, said to be a witchwoman who won the king's heart with magic in an attempt to gain the throne for an heir, and who died of despair when her child turned out to be female. Her father treats her with distant kindness but is of little help against the insults from the rest of the royal family, and her magic, her birthright as royalty, is either horribly late or nonexistent. She's out-of-place, unliked, and disregarded, consoling herself by forming a bond with her father's lamed warhorse and teaching herself from an ancient book of magical potions.

In short, it's a setup familiar to any long-time fantasy reader: the classic story of the red-headed step-child. Aerin doesn't fit in the expected way, but predictably turns out to have rare powers and abilities and a strength of will and courage that leads her to become the savior of the kingdom. It's all very unsurprising. Determination and patience are rewarded by power, there's a mentor figure who re-explains the world to make the protagonist more central, there's a fairly standard two-peak plot structure and a recovery from wounds, and you can probably fill in the rest of the blanks.

Given that, I'm somewhat surprised The Hero and the Crown won the Newbery Medal. It does have a few points in its favor: the protagonist is a woman (well, more a girl for much of the story) rather than a man, it's well-paced, and McKinley does an excellent job breaking up the exposition and flashbacks into a story-telling style that follows the drifting of Aerin's thoughts without losing structure or becoming difficult to follow. McKinley's technique is solid, she pushes the right buttons to win the reader over to the side of the character, and the mentor-figure has a few refreshing differences from the standard ancient wizard. But it's still a well-written example of a very stock story. I was particularly disappointed by the ending, which didn't feel well-integrated with the rest of the book and at times felt like an adventure game puzzle (pick up everything you see and then use everything in your inventory at each challenge).

It's possible that this book gains new depth if read following The Blue Sword as world background. Sometimes resonance with another story helps. But read by itself, I can only recommend it if one badly wants a typical heroic fantasy plot with a female protagonist and doesn't mind a story that stays firmly in the center of familiar ground.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-08-30

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21