There is no way I can give this book an objective review; it is one of the few that solidified my love of YA books as well as earning McKinley a special place in my heart and on my shelves. I love it. I have loved it since I first read it, which wasn't as long ago as it should have been (I was only 12 in 1984 when this book came out; this was one book I should have read, and would have loved, when I was that age. But I missed it completely.)
It's a companion book to The Blue Sword (if you haven't read that one, you should. It was written first, but you can read these two in any order), though it takes place centuries before. Aerin is the daughter of Damar's king, Arlbeth, though she's not comfortable in that place. For one, her mother was a foreigner, a Northerner, and not especially trusted. And she's often despised and ridiculed for existing. She does have one friend, Tor, who sticks up for her, teaches her swordplay and horsemanship, and eventually falls in love with her. Aerin tries to find her place in a world that she doesn't feel she belongs in. After a near-fatal accident, she discovers a recipe of sorts for kenet, which eventually leads her to being able to fight the little dragons that annoy and disturb the countryside. That leads, on one fateful day, to her facing the Black Dragon, Maur, and from there, discovering and embracing her destiny.
It's a marvelous tale. Aerin is perfect: headstrong, lovable, understandable. What girl hasn't felt that she fit in? What girl doesn't long to make her parents proud, but is ashamed of her insecurity? What girl doesn't want to know how she can make a difference? Aerin is one of those characters that you embrace and cheer and understand and love. And whose courage and bravery seem not super-heroic, but real and attainable.
This conversation takes place soon after Aerin kills her first dragon, and is, afterward, sworn to serve the king:
Aerin and her father looked at each other. For the first time she had official position in his court; she had not merely been permitted her place, as she had grudgingly been permitted her undeniable place at his side as his daughter, but she had won it. She carried the king's sword, and thus was, however irregularly, a member of his armies and his loyal sworn servant as well as his daughter. She had a place of her own -- both taken and granted. Aerin clutched the spears to her breast, painfully banging her knee with the sword scabbard in the process. She nodded.And McKinley's writing is nearly flawless (there's a place at the end where you have to read through a couple of times to get what happened). This is when Aerin faces Maur:
"Good. If you had remained hidden, I would have sent Gebeth again -- and think of the honor you would have lost. "
Aerin, who seemed to have lost her voice instead, nodded again.
"Another lesson for you, my dear. Royalty isn't allowed to hide -- at least not once it has declared itself."
A little of her power of speech came back to her, and she croaked, "I have hidden all my life."
Something like a smile glimmered in Arlbeth's eyes. "Do I not know this? I have thought more and more often of what I must do if you did not stand forth of your own accord. But you have -- if not quite in the manner I might have wished -- and I shall take every advantage of it."
Maur raised its head with a snap, and the spear bounced harmlessly off the horny ridge beneath its eye; and Talat lurched out of the way of the striking tail. The dragon's head snaked around as Talat evaded the tail, and Talat dodged again, and fire sang past Aerin's ear, fire like nothing either Talat or Aerin had seen before, any more than this dragon was like any other dragon they had seen. The fire was nearly white, like lightning, and it smelled hard and metallic; it smelled like the desert at noon, it smelled like a forest fire; and the blast of air that sheathed it was hotter than any Damarian forge.There really isn't much more to say about it. It's one of my favorites, and may always be. It's also become one of my oldest daughter's favorites, something which I'm very happy about. And not just because it's an excellent book. But because it's an excellent book about an admirable girl.