Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown is the second book I read for my SFF class week on Epic Fantasy. The thing about his book is how classic the plot is but how well-crafted.
Aerin is the daughter of a king and normally with royal blood she should be good at magic, but she isn’t. Her mother was the king’s second wife and a Northern Witchwoman at that, so Aerin is looked down on at court (not, thankfully by her family). She takes on another rejected member of court, Talat, the King’s former horse, who’d gone lame saving the king in a battle. Together they are kind of badass, but in a very low-key way.
One of the things I love is that she spends three years working in a shed on getting the proportions just right for a fire-proof ointment she’d found a recipe for in a mouldy old book. She doesn’t find the recipe, make it, and then go off slaying dragons; everything takes time.
That playing with time comes up most drastically at the end of the book where she climbs stairs for “an awfully long time” which is probably longer than you think.
Structurally the book builds through her different trials, from quitting hiding herself at court, to being the king’s dragon-killer, to being something far more and then returning to be queen. It’s wonderful and melancholy. There isn’t the sense of oh my isn’t life tough, because she’s just barrelling through making her own decisions and creating a life for herself.
This is what epic fantasy should be. I mean yes, there’s the call to adventure, Joseph Campbell stuff to it, and it’s about leaving home, cutting the apron-strings in the way so much of this genre is, but this is exquisitely well done. Highly recommended