Book Reviews Decoding the Newbery

Decoding the Newbery: Blue Sword, Red Hair, Black Scales – THE HERO AND THE CROWN by Robin McKinley

Decoding the Newbery is a monthly column in which Newbery Medal winners are examined and deconstructed by regular contributor and author Catherine Faris King. This month, Catherine reads The Hero and the Crown, the Newbery winner for 1985.

“The Hero’s Crown hold much of what Damar is; or at least much of what her king needs to hold his people together and free of mischief.” – The Hero and the Crown, pg. 73

I love fantasy. I love what magic brings to a story, to let the unreal illustrate what is most human. But not all fantasy is created equal. I come to The Hero and the Crown having not read any of the other books set in Damar, but having a healthy background in fantasy otherwise.

Hero and the Crown

I’ve got a lot to say, but let’s do the Newbery Formula Breakdown before I start griping.

The Hero and the Crown is fairly unconventional according to the Newbery Formula. Our heroine, Aerin-sol, is at sixteen not exactly a kid hero, although she is sheltered and doesn’t think much of herself. People don’t treat her like a child; more like a nuisance. But they give her the requisite freedom she needs to wander into heroism. The Damar court is not exactly a small town, although the way McKinley describes it, it’s a closed-in community that feeds on its own gossip. So it provides a similar feeling, that is, a place where Aerin-sol does not really belong. (“Sol,” by the way, is Robin McKinley’s term for “the word ‘princess’ isn’t cool enough for me so I’m going to invent my own and it’s going to be a suffix for no good reason.”)

I don’t know why, but I could not really connect to the people as anything beyond stock characters, neither through action nor dialogue. Maybe that’s why I didn’t buy either of Aerin’s relationships with her Romantic Interests – one relationship is mostly pining and long glances from across a room, another is snippy banter that at some point resolves itself into acknowledged passionate love. Those are two very seaworthy kinds of “ship” (to borrow a fandom phase), but neither one sails without that moment of connection, of understanding why these two work for one another as romantic partners. And I did not get that connection. I’m tempted to blame the prose – more on that later.

The book’s real catalysts are the magical incursions from the North. The workings of an evil sorcerer are inviting war, and ancient, malevolent dragons awaken from slumber. The Magical Mentor is a straight example, and a fairly literal one, at that – his name is Luthe, he is an immortal sorcerer, and is a latecomer to the plot.

An important character dies quite late in the book – a casualty of war, treated quite matter-of-factly. Still, it qualifies as a Death By Newbery Medal because it cements Aerin’s transition to adulthood.

Aerin is desperate to prove herself a worthy daughter of the royal line, and her young efforts strike her down, catastrophically. She poisons herself unintentionally with surat-leaf, and nearly dies of burns after fighting the terrible dragon Maur. Both instances require a long convalescence and a slow recovery – in the fine tradition of Tolkien. I liked that. I liked McKinley’s refusal to brush off the lingering effects of battles with dragons – and battles with despair.

I also liked the plotline dealing with Aerin’s Animal Friend. In her great pain, Aerin reaches out to someone who is also suffering, and helps them. This someone is her father’s retired and injured warhorse, Talat. He becomes Aerin’s clever and loyal steed through the battles ahead. Aerin’s work taking care of him becomes the book’s Hands-On Activity (there’s also something about rediscovering an ointment to resist fire, but the horse is more interesting).

McKinley lavishes details upon Talat, and Aerin’s care of him. This is one of the strongest choices she made as a writer. In less careful fantasy, horses are plot-expedient machines who need no maintenance except maybe now and then a little food. If your “standard” princess must be sweet and good to animals in order to be likable, Aerin’s thorough and unglamorous recuperation of Talat is worth a thousand duets with cute woodland creatures.

There’s a good story here, and plenty of strong, archetypal images – the sorcerer waiting unchanging in his hall while the seasons turn; the valiant knight who brings springtime to a winter-blasted land; the serene lake of magic. I just didn’t connect to the characters… and I didn’t like the writing.

I’ve never finished a Robin McKinley novel before, although I have tried. The Hero and the Crown suffers from an overabundance of exposition – and not even very good exposition.

The novel begins on the verge of a great battle, and then, without ceremony or designation, dives into a flashback for the first half, to show how we got here. We spend years in flashback.

The sentences pile on top of one another with no grace at all – like this clunker: “Galanna and Perlith’s wedding was the first great state event since the celebration of Tor’s coming to manhood, and thus his taking his full place at his uncle’s right hand, less than two years after his own father died” (McKinley 40).

Maybe it’s not that bad by itself. But imagine paragraphs of sentences all like that, packed together one after another. It’s a terrible reading experience. And the worst of it is, it’s boring. What do I care about the Damar court? There are dragons! And demons! I’ve read other fantasy that dabbled in court politics while ignoring the far more interesting magical threat at the border, and it can be pulled off, but most of the time I feel like I’m being cheated out of something.

And if there’s going to be magic – you need to set up the magic. Even if the writer is just dabbling in magical realism, they need to set up whatever it is that sets their world apart. They ought to set it up early and clearly in proportion to how important it is to the story.

But here? McKinley has no setup. What magic is there is, aside from the vague magical Gift enjoyed by the royal family, is either introduced very late, or never explained clearly enough. For instance, the idea that there is a demon army beyond the Northern border. Are those really “demons,” as in, malign and inhuman spirits? Because in context, that could just as easily be an army of human soldiers who have some propaganda paving the way before them. But, no, the magic is there, apparently, although we never actually learn that much about what the demons are and why they’re working for our Evil Overlord du Jour. And the Lake of Dreams annoyed me particularly. There had been no indication of geographic magic anywhere in the book up to that point. What does the Lake of Dreams do? It does what the story needs. How magical!

No, I did not like The Hero and the Crown. I appreciate the book’s good qualities, and I know Robin McKinley has many fans, but I am not one of them. Give me the wholesome nobility of Alexander’s Prydain, cheesy though it may be, or the grounded humanism of Pierce’s Emelan or Tortall. The Eighties were a weird decade, and I’m happy to leave them behind and go onto the Nineties.

You may well ask What’s Next, because the Nineties’ roster of Newbery winners has many beloved favorites, from Holes to Number the Stars, to the well-remembered honorees The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm. However, when it came to picking one work to stand for that decade and its anxieties, the choice was obvious.

The Giver

I’ve foreshadowed it here time and again. It crosses genre expectations, it uses fantastical devices to speak to the heart of human experience, and it has aged marvelously well. Tune in this December when I take a new look at Lois Lowry’s Newbery winner for 1994, The Giver.


  • Sharon
    November 12, 2015 at 11:11 am

    In defense!

    I like The Hero and the Crown, and I think the place where our opinions differ is that I LOVE court politics books. This book is definitely two halves, the court part and the adventure quest part, and I kind of liked the court part better, for her trying to fit in and navigate things and find herself in a context where she doesn’t fit.

    Robin McKinley is definitely all about telling instead of showing, with a very fairy-tale style of writing, not very intimate or personal. But once I get into her style, I feel like I can appreciate them on their own level; she doesn’t hand me the emotions; she shows me the circumstances and I have to construct their emotional meaning myself. That’s why I felt Aerin’s relationship with Tor worked really well; it was built on a lifetime of caring about each other.

    As for the honorifics, “princess” is a loaded word. There are expectations for how a princess should succeed or fail, and those were not really what Aerin was facing; using a different word makes a lot of sense to me. If I recall correctly, there was not a lot of gendered oppression (at least at the level of royalty) in the book.

    Anyway, I definitely see most of your complaints. It’s not for everyone. But who needs magic when you have court politics?

  • Angie
    November 12, 2015 at 12:00 pm

    “The Hero and the Crown suffers from an overabundance of exposition – and not even very good exposition.”

    Wow. I think we might be actual diametrically opposed readers. Nothing comes close to McKinley’s writing for me. Particularly her writing in this book.

  • Kim Aippersbach
    November 12, 2015 at 12:56 pm

    Sharon said —
    she doesn’t hand me the emotions; she shows me the circumstances and I have to construct their emotional meaning myself—

    Yes, that’s exactly what sets McKinley apart from most YA writers: the “feels” aren’t handed to you. To me that’s the essence of “showing, not telling.” The distancing storyteller’s voice is another thing I really appreciate about her writing—it creates that fairy-tale atmosphere I crave, while the careful psychological construction of her heroines places me right in the middle of the magical world. (Exactly like Star Wars: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” but the teenage Luke is instantly recognizable and relatable.)

    Having said all that, I admit Aerin is the McKinley heroine I relate least to. She is a bit too legendary, too caught up in her own destiny. Harry of The Blue Sword is the character I return to when I want to visit Damar.

    And if the high-fantasy narration sounds too dated for the modern ear to appreciate, McKinley’s later novels use quite different voices, to excellent effect. (Still lots of exposition, though, she’ll always have that!)

  • Lisa
    November 12, 2015 at 1:59 pm

    Count me as another lover of The Hero and the Crown, one of my favorite Newbery winners. I wasn’t able to make it through on my own the first time (at age 10 or 11, probably?), so my mom read it to me, but I’ve reread it many times since, enjoying it more each time. To me, the character of Aerin comes through loud and clear — damaged after years of being ignored and undervalued, tough as nails in response, a gigantic chip on her shoulder. I don’t understand the objections to “sol/sola” or the gradual revelations about magic in Damar and the surrounding territories; to me, the reading is a multi-layered process of discovery, and those layers and the particularly dense “storyteller voice” (to borrow Kim’s description) prose do ask for multiple readings. But I don’t see that necessarily as a fault so much as a fact, a feature.

  • Tiffany M.
    November 13, 2015 at 1:32 am

    I enjoyed your review, and see many of your points. It’s just that Robin McKinley is one of my favorite authors, and I love her. I love the flaws you see, sometimes because of the flaw and sometimes because I don’t see it as such. I feel her words, her many, many words, are meant for those of us who are patient enough to listen and let it soak into our souls. That first chapter of The Blue Sword took me two readings to get through at first, but now I look forward to the introduction of the world, the setting she creates, and the small details that help round out the story.
    While I was not as enamored of The Hero and the Crown, I adored The Blue Sword and fell completely in love with the simplicity of Beauty. Her stories are like coming home to my favorite storyteller. I agree with the earlier commenters about her creating a fairytale atmosphere. So many fairytales played out in my head more elaborately than the few words offered, and I feel she helps expand that picture.
    Thank you for the lovely review.

  • Laura V
    November 13, 2015 at 11:12 am

    One of the things I find most interesting about McKinley — who I love as a writer — is that I almost NEVER buy the romances. Or at least, not the protagonists’ romances; side characters are a different story (all the sisters in both Beauty & Rose Daughter, for example). I often end up perplexed by a sudden romance out of nowhere; I think the worst example of this is in “Chalice”, where it’s not good for the Chalice and the Master to marry BUT THEY ARE GOING TO ANYWAY OUT OF NO HINTS OF ROMANCE WHATSOEVER. What the heck, McKinley.

  • Ana
    November 14, 2015 at 5:21 am

    I haven’t read this particular book but I am curious to see where I would fall in the spectrum. I have mixed feelings about McKinley’s oeuvre – the things that Catherine describe here are similar to the feelings I had for Spindle’s End for example, a book I was not particularly fond of. They also kinda describe Sunshine and Shadows and yet, I LOVE those books.

  • Thea
    November 14, 2015 at 2:55 pm

    Chiming in here to agree and disagree! I have a love/hate relationship with Robin McKinley–like Catherine, I am all-too-familiar with the frustration with certain facets of McKinley’s writing style, particularly the over-abundance of exposition. I love Deerskin, for example, but could not stand Sunshine . That said, for this particular story and its companion, I fall into the love camp–heck, I even reviewed The Blue Sword my *very* first month of reviewing here on The Book Smugglers!

    Like I said… mixed feels.

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