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.
Part 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!