Fantasy writers in the last few decades have fallen into a very bad habit. Whether it's the result of postmodern influences or just lazy storytelling isn't apparent and probably doesn't matter—what matters is that the habit has resulted in many ultimately unsatisfying fantasy novels, of which Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown is one.
The bad habit is the tendency to shroud plot and characters in so much mystery that when A) the mystery is revealed, it is anti-climactic, or when B) the mystery is never revealed, readers throw the book against the wall in frustration. There's some of both going on here, resulting in a confusing and not very believable story that smacks of its many influences.
Aerin is the daughter of King Arlbeth of Damar, but she has no favor with his people. Her mother was rumored to be a witch, and as a result the epithet "witch woman's daughter" is whispered behind Aerin's back, and sometimes to her face. She has no magic ability, she feels awkward, and her only friend is Tor, the man destined to become king when Arlbeth dies.
But Aerin is good at other things. She nurses Talat, the king's lamed war-horse, back to health; Tor teaches her swordsmanship; and she proves to be a skilled and successful dragonslayer. Most dragons are dangerous vermin, about the size of bears and nasty more than a serious threat, but the black dragon Maur is a different story, and Aerin takes him on with the same calm bravery with which she ferrets out and destroys his lesser relatives.
The first part of the book unfolds in a series of flashbacks. Then Aerin is almost killed by Maur, and things unfold rapidly. A young-old mage named Luthe nurses her to health, sends her to fight the evil wizard Agsded, becomes her lover, and sends her back to the City she left to bring back a powerful ancient artifact and deliver her people from the armies of the North besieging the City.
McKinley attempts to make connections between characters and events, but they often come off stilted and contrived. Worse, they seem like the connections made in every other fantasy novel. A heroine (or hero) whose ultimate foe is actually a close relative? Been there. A main character whose seeming lack of power is actually an abundance of power? Done that.
What's more, it's as if McKinley is banking on our knowledge of better fantasy novels in order to help us understand this one. At one point, with absolutely no indication that this was coming or even a possibility, Luthe and Aerin do some time travel. It's kind of like Samwise looking into Galadriel's mirror, but not as compelling and much more confusing.
Or the fact that a bunch of wild dogs and cats (big ones) follow Aerin for no explicable reason. Or the fact that Luthe draws Aerin to himself in a very mystical way that is never explained and doesn't make much sense. Or the fact that the big confrontation between Aerin and Agsded is so frustratingly anti-climactic and even a bit boring.
As if this wasn't enough, McKinley inserts a sexually-charged romance between Luthe (who's about a million years old) and Aerin (who's eighteen). There's nothing graphic or very explicit, but the nature of their relationship is obvious, and again, we have no explanation for why such feelings and behavior would develop between them. In fact, Luthe comes off as a bit of a creep.
Which leads us to the real problem with The Hero and the Crown. We could forgive the unsolved mysteries permeating the plot, perhaps, if there was some legitimate character development. Aerin is the only character who actually seems real, and even then there's too much of the wise, awkward, unloved, strong-willed, super awesome girl-hero to make her more than caricature.
Once the dragons show up it seems like the book is going to get really good. McKinley's overblown language fades, and her ideas about dragons and dragonslaying are truly original and creative. Alas, the dragon sequence is too short, and we're left with a fairly bland fantasy that's too long and too grown-up for most kids, and too derivative for the rest of us.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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