With The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, Robin McKinley offered up two fantasy tales that truly set the standard. Both books won a Newbery Medal, and The Blue Sword won two more ALA awards. The Hero and the Crown is the prequel to The Blue Sword, even though it was actually published afterwards, but both books take place in the land of Damar, where the royal bloodline holds a mysterious magic that is both gift and curse, and two brave young women are called upon to defend their land with one very powerful sword.
The Hero and the Crown: Aerin is the king’s daughter, but rumors of her deceased foreigner mother plus her wild red hair separate her from the court. When she discovers an old recipe for fire-proofing, she begins a career as a dragon-killer, until she faces the giant Black Dragon Maur who nearly kills her before she kills him. Aerin doesn’t heal from her injuries but is healed and rescued by the mysterious mage Luthe at the Lake of Dreams. He gives her the magical blade Gonturan and she sets out to kill her evil sorcerer uncle. Then she must battle her way home to save her kingdom once and for all.
The Blue Sword: Several hundred years later, the Homelanders have arrived on Damarian soil and claimed much of it for their own. A Homelander girl called Harry is stolen from her bed by Corlath, king of what remains of Damar. She comes to love Damar and trains in the warrior arts with her new sword Gonturan, before competing in and winning a tournament of skill. She becomes a King’s Rider, but when they ride to war against the North, runs away to try and block a small gap in the mountains in Homelander country. Turns out the enemy focused his attack there and she and her ragtag recruits must hold the gap against almost the entire Northern army.
These two books are the sentinels of the fantasy genre – the world McKinley creates is completely different from any we’ve seen before, and it is also completely self-contained and self-sustaining. Not much stays in the realm of believability, but again, this is fantasy. Magic, magical weapons, magic-wielding enemies, you get the picture. However, McKinley pays as much attention to the detail of what they eat for breakfast as she does to creating the less mundane bits, which helps to ground you in the narrative. It is all told with such skill and crafting that you want to go to this other world, and get carried away. This is great fantasy that surprises you even as you recognize books that set the standards so often mocked today.
Both Aerin and Harry are young women who feel ostracized and uncertain of their place in the world. Aerin is distrusted by her own people, and Harry has been torn away from her home and thrown in with a completely new society. But both are valued by other intelligent and noble characters, and both manage to forge a preferable place for themselves. They are skilled warriors daring in battle, and though both are set against daunting fates, they don’t once flinch away. Both women become commanders, leading many other male soldiers into suicidal battles, and winning. In both these stories, the legends are of the women, not only the men.
I’d liken these books to grown-up Tamora Pierce; Harry and Aerin are great role models. Niether of them go out looking for glory or command, but they end up with it anyway. So if you want to read books that get down to what fantasy YA is really about, check these out. Everything McKinley writes is pretty much gold (we reviewed her book Sunshine earlier) so you’re safe whatever you read, but these two may be my favorites! Recommended for middle to upper-grade readers.