Aerin-sol has a lot to live down. Story goes that she’s the daughter of a witchwoman from the North who enspelled the King into marrying her so that she may bear a son and heir to Damar. All almost went according to plan until Aerin was born instead, and the witchwoman died of heartbreak. Worse still is that Aerin does not have the Gift, the knack for magic that all members of the royal family possess. So the rumors and wariness of the hafor, the household folk, and the daily mocking of her lower relatives remains in full force. But Aerin tries not to care, going about her quiet life avoiding the spotlight. Her swordplay, preference for horsebackriding and dislike of frills and lady charms doesn’t escape the eye of the gossiping court, however. Nonetheless Aerin continues to practice and learn all she can. Because she knows she has a different destiny than most and one day she will prove their wagging tongues wrong and earn the honor the first sol and heir of the King deserves.
I wasn’t too sure if I’d like this book, but I went in feeling fair and hoping that I would. After all those strong recommendations of Beauty and not loving it I was admittedly worried that Robin McKinley was just not for me and fearful of trying another title. It never set well with me because she’s such a successful and beloved YA fantasy author. How could I not like her? It took Angie over at Angieville’s carefully considered recommendation of The Hero and the Crown before I felt reassured enough to give McKinley another chance. The first few chapters were a little slow-going, due to the explanation of the political sol/sola hierarchy system and the endless terrorizing of Aerin by her jealous cousin Galanna. What stayed with me was that classic first line:
Aerin could not remember a time when she had not known the story; she had grown up knowing it.
Awesome. Who could not be intrigued to read on? That I liked Aerin from the time she timidly but courageously asked her father in front of the court if she could go to the North with the army on their next expedition helped too. When she already knew the answer but still asked, I knew she was going to be my type of heroine. Alternately reserved and outspoken, at times uncannily resourceful and flawlingly human, in Aerin are the origins of the strong, plucky, and independent contemporary fantasy heroine, who isn’t acted upon as she waits at home for the male characters to do the work. She’s assertive; she acts to change her circumstances for the better. Even when she has a terrible rash and is climbing an infinite staircase. Especially when she’s fighting dragons with no training or plan beyond her painstaking research into fire-repelling kenet.
As far as the other characters are concerned, they were just icing on the cake. Talat is more much than the average horse and is like Aerin in many ways. Courageous, loyal, long-suffering and a four-legged person who’s come a long way to be the trusty steed of a hero. Aerin’s cousin, lifelong friend, and heir to the throne Tor is very endearing. He loved her from the beginning, never thought Aerin was no one and went on to discreetly teach her swordplay and even give her a sword despite his misgivings, since he knew Aerin all too well. There are tender moments between Aerin and her father, King Arlbeth and a sweet relationship for Aerin with immortal mage Luthe. Honestly the whole Luthe part threw me for a loop and made me worry for Tor but I had faith that everything work in the end and it did. I also liked how McKinley didn’t brush over the journeying and recovering. Aerin goes through a lot of physical and other pain, and that we experience it all with her makes it the more epic and rewarding. What’s next for me? Another Robin McKinley? Didn’t think I’d ever be saying that.