The Hero and the Crown, Robin McKinley
Wow, I don’t know why I didn’t really like The Hero and the Crown very much on the first go round. It’s full of all the kinds of things I love: love stories that aren’t just simple love-at-first-sight or we-grew-up-together-and-now-we’re-in-love, but something more complicated that that; a world with a history and a future, outside of what we’ve got; a heroine who works through flaws and barriers to become a hero. And the last sentences — ach! Lovely.
It’s not some straightforward children’s story in which a heroine goes forth and slays a dragon. That happens, but it happens as part of a longer journey: the dragon isn’t the end, but only really the beginning of Aerin’s journey. It doesn’t solve all her issues and let her go home unscathed, unchanged, to a court that’s suddenly ready to accept her. Aerin’s story is harder than that.
Looking at my old review/notes on this, I was disappointed by the worldbuilding — which I think is funny, because though it’s subtle, there’s plenty here. The surka, the crown, old heroes, Luthe’s background, why the animals follow Aerin: there’s so much that doesn’t get elucidated, but remains there for you to turn over and wonder at. McKinley doesn’t give you all the answers about her world in one go, and I doubt that The Blue Sword will answer all of it either. Maybe you have to do a little more work to really appreciate the history of the world, because McKinley does nothing so clumsy as sit you in a history lesson with Aerin to learn about it.
Overall, given the subtlety of parts of this and the wistfulness of the love stories, I’m not entirely sure how I’d have taken this as a child. It may be a prime example of a story that works on two levels: Aerin waving her sword around for younger readers, winning the day with her prowess, while the older readers might taste more of the bittersweetness of her immortality and her twin-nature.