The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley

How do I take on The Hero and the Crown? Now I’m really late to the party.

Travel blogging was so much easier.

Someone in my writing group recommended to me The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, as inspiration for my own work. I found out it was a coworker’s favorite, and borrowed it from her, along with its prequel, The Hero and the Crown. So began my journey.

Maybe eventually I’ll stop describing how I came to read each book. Maybe not.

Honestly, it was difficult for me to get through The Blue Sword. The writing was good, though I say that begrudgingly, as I almost put the book down several times. The protagonist, Harry, was the antagonist to dialogue, creating silence in every corner of the novel as she put in her very best effort to blend into the walls. My coworker called Harry more of a thinker. I wanted to like Harry. I really did. But it seemed that things just happened to her, rather than her having agency of her own, and then she was just good at whatever she was forced to try.

In any case, it was because of Harry that it took me so very long to pick up The Hero and the Crown. I was so very, very tired of the dialogue of other characters being followed by “She did not know what to say.” But after reading Uprooted, I saw a review pondering whether the character Luthe in The Hero and the Crown had inspired the spell “Luthe’s Summoning” in Uprooted. Margaret Atwood said “Literature is a long and contiguous conversation, each story linked to hundreds of others that came before it and those that will follow it.” She also said something like, if you don’t know the original, you won’t get the joke. So I was feeling left out of the joke, and grumpily began The Hero and the Crown. 

Aerin, the protagonist in The Hero and the Crown was a hearty reprieve from Harry The Speechless. Aerin is not what a princess is “meant” to be, and I became vaguely fond of her character. She is stubborn and sometimes rash in a humorous way, and her agency is present always. McKinley’s writing style keeps us distant from characters’ innermost thoughts much of the time, revealing them only after we’ve gotten to the punchline. This style seems very intentional, though I usually prefer being closer to the protagonist’s thoughts.

Let’s get straight to the romance. Sorry. I’d read that The Hero and the Crown has a love triangle, which surprised me after the romance in The Blue Sword. But McKinley doesn’t make a big deal of it, similar to how she did not make a big deal of the romance in The Blue Sword. To be honest, I like a bit of trash romance (as in Uprooted) in my novels, and the romance in McKinley’s duology is slow burn and sweet at best. It’s not what the books are about, and I get that, but a girl can dream.

It’s clear from the start that there’s something between Tor and Aerin. I would have been very surprised had they not gotten together. There’s a burn between them early on, but then Aerin gets really caught up in her dragon-slaying mission and can’t be bothered with Tor. Only later do we find out that she does reciprocate Tor’s feelings, much later in fact, though I wished we’d gotten more clues. Tor is a constant of her mortal life, and McKinley does not let us forget that.

Aerin dreams about Luthe when she is dying after her encounter with the black dragon, which is our cue that Luthe will be a Romantic Lead. Dreams about a “tall blond man”? Of course that means they’ll fall in love. It’s textbook.

He’s like 100 years old, but whatever because he’s hot and young-looking, per the usual YA trope. So anyway, that happens. I realized when we arrived at Luthe’s forest that we’d met him before, in The Blue Sword. But we learn so much more about him in The Hero and the Crown, which lends to the meaning of the spell in Uprooted.

Ah, my heart. I may have wished for many things to be different about Uprooted, but Luthe’s Summoning was not one of them. That thread was woven into the story so cleanly from beginning to end, a symbol of truth and cleansing that was written so beautifully every time it was cast. I wouldn’t be surprised if Luthe was the inspiration for the spell in Uprooted.

I do appreciate how McKinley doesn’t have Aerin choose one man or the other in the end. Tor is the now, the mortal part of Aerin. But she will reunite with Luthe after Tor is gone. It’s sad, to know Tor will die and Aerin will go on–but McKinley embraces the complexity of it. Aerin is bigger than Tor, though he is part of her.

A lot happens in The Hero and the Crown, in a relatively short number of pages. Aerin grows up, she learns to slay dragons, she slays THE black dragon, she has a romance with Luthe, she slays her evil uncle who also has an important crown, she saves the day in her city, then she settles down and marries Tor. Though it isn’t my usual style, I appreciated this story and this book’s place as a classic. I’ll keep pondering this one.

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