Killing dragons is not enough

imagesThe Hero and the Crown (1985 Newbery), Robin McKinley

I love a good fantasy, and this one is good enough to stand with Garth Nix’s Sabriel. Aerin is King Arlbeth’s only child but, because she’s a girl, not next in line for the throne (that goes to her cousin, Tor). Possibly also because she’s the daughter of Arlbeth’s second wife, the witch-woman.

Aerin’s wild red hair is a sign of her difference, but there are others, her strong allergic reaction to magic being the chief. She’s an outsider despite her position in the royal family, desperate to prove herself but unsure how to do so. Then trouble arises at the northern frontier, dragons begin pestering villages, and the Damarian Crown — the source of power for every ruler — is still missing.

200px-Sabriel_Book_CoverPart One of this novel begins the day Arlbeth and Tor head out to deal with the northern troubles. Aerin asks to go with them and is kindly rejected. In a long flashback (half the novel), we learn Aerin’s past and why she wants to go with them. Part Two sends Aerin on her own quest — to kill a dragon, save her own life, and, eventually, her country. A horse, a sword, a potion, and a dragon stone are mastered and then used by Aerin as she meets and overcomes every challenge.

McKinley populates her world with plants, animals and foods unlike any in our world. There’s a deadly poisonous vine, the surka, that is supposed to give visions to anyone with royal blood. The morning wake-up drink is malak, evidently strong enough to curl straight hair. And mik-bars (which I initially read as milk-bars) are food for horses and humans alike. Made from mik, obviously, but whether plant- or animal-product, I can’t say.

McKinley doesn’t make this an easy book to read. There is no glossary, no list of characters (I must be a poor reader, for I kept confusing Aerin’s horse, Talat, with her cousin, Tor), no explanatory asides. For the first several pages, we don’t even know the heroine’s name. We’re dumped into Aerin’s world and expected to figure it out from the bits and pieces McKinley drops in our path. Once I finished the book, I was ready to start it again, for now I felt I would understand everything.

Wondering about all these fantasy heroines? Your assignment: Read this article. It raises questions about the roles young women are given in recent fantasy novels. Are they merely “heroes in drag”?

Newbery Fun Fact: As this book is a prequel, I thought to count how many Award winners were part of a series: 9!

About Lizzie Ross

in no particular order: author, teacher, cyclist, world traveler, single parent. oh, and i read. a lot.
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10 Responses to Killing dragons is not enough

  1. calmgrove says:

    A fine review that tempts me into trying McKinley, though heaven knows I’m loathe to get sucked in on another fantasy series! And thanks for the link, which makes some really interesting observations about gender roles in fantasy.


    • Lizzie Ross says:

      If it’s any help, I’ve felt no urge to find and read the next book in this series. It took me 3 attempts, over 5 years to get past page 10 of this one (those pages are SO confusing) — I’m glad I did, it’s a great story, but it was work. Nix’s Old Kingdom series (Sabriel, etc) is easier to fall into, but there are no dragons.
      I was sorry the linked article made not even passing mention of Ged and Orm Embar, or, better still, of Tehanu, the ultimate “dragon sayer”.


      • calmgrove says:

        Yes, that surprised just a little; Tehanu is such an interesting character. I must give the series, and the short stories, another go soon. And the Old Kingdom series. I re-read Sabriel for review but got diverted.


        • Lizzie Ross says:

          Perhaps it’s because they thought LeGuin’s “Trilogy” was indeed only 3 books. I, too, feel the urge to sail off to Earthsea. It’s been too long since I was last there.
          I had an argument w/ a friend who hated the 4th book, because Ged had become not just minor, but demeaned! I couldn’t convince him that this was partly about old age — about how everyone’s powers diminish, including archmages’. But wisdom remains.


          • calmgrove says:

            I agree with you. Just because fantasy often recycles or rejigs familiar tropes doesn’t mean we have to ignore that fantasy characters are essentially us and that other worlds are at core reflections of our own.


          • Lizzie Ross says:

            I may have to write something about how so many fantasies at some level examine issues surrounding aging and death — the fear of it, efforts to escape it, visions of immortality, etc. Is the desire for absolute power anything other than the desire for power over death itself?


  2. calmgrove says:

    Yes, please do! I’d look forward to reading it. You put me in mind of young Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle who is bespelled into an old woman, with aches and pains and all that infirmity brings. I suggest ( that Diana Wynne Jones, then in her fifties, was herself anticipating old age; the book may have been an attempt to exorcise those fears.


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