Although the mother of one of my oldest friend gifted me both The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword for my birthday a few years ago, the books had ended up on my to-read shelf and I’d basically forgotten about them until we hosted our annual pancake party back in February. These books have such unassuming little spines, and although they’re readable in a day (I know, because I read Hero in less), I just hadn’t felt compelled to dive into that kind of fantasy novel until a new friend noticed them and began haranguing me to read them.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that every time I saw her, she brought up the books, asked me if I’d read them yet, and then demanded to know why I hadn’t. Apparently, they were such a huge inspiration to her when she was a child that it was physically painful to think that I owned the books but hadn’t prioritized them. (And trust me, I understand that feeling – when I recommend a book or series to a friend and find out they haven’t started reading immediately, it bothers me because I know – even if they don’t – just how much awesome they’re missing out on!) We talked about how hard it had been for us to find fantasy novels with strong female protagonists, as well as how rare it was to find books with heroines that were also well written and appropriate for a younger audience.
I survived by branching out and borrowing just about anything and everything from my local library that featured women, regardless of genre, but for her, that wasn’t a satisfying solution. Consequently, knowing that these two books existed and could be reread whenever she needed a reminder that women could have agency in YA fantasy was a cornerstone to her identity as a reader.
I’d like to say that these discussions were the only motivation I needed to finally read these novels, but the truth is, I just wasn’t feeling good the other day, and I wanted to lay on the couch and read a paperback. The Hero and the Crown was the right size for the purpose (meaning it wouldn’t hurt my hand to hold it open while I lay on my side trying to will this baby’s feet out of my lungs). I wasn’t particularly in the mood for fantasy, but I figured if I hated it, I could always take a nap instead.
You may have gathered by this point that I expected, if not to hate it, then at least to be underwhelmed by the book. I’m not sure why I felt I would be (especially given that I’ve enjoyed McKinley’s work in the past), but my expectations were sensationally low. It was with great surprise, then, when I realized a few hours later that I had become so engrossed in the story that I had not only neglected to pick up my prescription from the pharmacy, but also my husband from his train.
It wasn’t that the book was so perfect that I couldn’t pick apart some structural flaws, because I could. Occasionally, I made note to myself of sections where solutions were overly simplified or tasks too easily won; nevertheless, I found myself loving the book. I could completely understand why this story would appeal deeply to a girl on the brink of adolescence. It’s not a love story, although it has some tender moments in it, but is instead a call to arms for a young woman who has felt isolated and estranged from both family and country her entire life.
Aerin’s successes stem from her willingness to understand and unwind tasks that come much more easily to those around her, as well as from her compassion for those whose suffering is much greater than her own. She’s no saint though, and the story is never cloying, even when it tugs at the heart. Her victories also come with a steep price, a truth we often learn more keenly as adults than we do as teens.
What stuck with me most though was how pure the experience of reading this book was. I felt transported, not into Aerin’s world, but back to my own youth, to a time when I could enjoy such a story with unbridled enthusiasm. I’m weeks, or maybe even just days away from transitioning from daughter to mother, and yet I can still open a book like this and return to a simpler time. It’s such a peace-filled gift to have discovered on my very own shelf.
For more about Robin McKinley, head here.