I never re-read The Hero and the Crown after I discovered it in the late 80's, though, so when I picked it up last week I really couldn't remember why I loved it so much, nor many of the details of the story.
It didn't take me long to realize that (again, like Melissa) it was the writing and the characters - especially Aerin, the main character - that really got to me. Like J.R.R. Tolkien (sorry, but that's what got me hooked so hard on fantasy as a child), McKinley combines the mythical and the down-to-earth perfectly. And furthermore, she writes about a young girl, the rescue of a beautiful and intelligent horse, dragons, and secret powers - I would have read this and re-read it countless times if it had been out when I was an adolescent. Now, I noticed how cleverly that McKinley portrayed Aerin as a likable, irreverant, smart outsider - much like Rae in Sunshine, come to think of it.
There are a few things that bothered me a bit this time around. McKinley does an incredible job of world-building, but the Damarian names for things jarred sometimes. I didn't mind sol and sola (princes and princesses) so much, but hafor (for "folk of the household") and yerig and folstza and a few other terms interrupted the narrative unnecessarily.
There are two love stories in the book - I liked them both, and the more than "happily ever after" ending was a refreshing change. Funny how I completely forgot about Luthe (and pretty much Tor, too) since the first time I read The Hero and the Crown. Mostly I remembered Aerin, her horse, and the dragon. But although there's nothing particularly explicit about Aerin's relationship with Luthe, I think that it makes the book more appropriate for older Newbery readers. Plus, the writing (though exquisite), can be rather intense. Take this excerpt about despair:
A blast of grief, of the deaths of children, of crippling diseases that took beauty at once but withheld death; of unconsummated love, of love lost or twisted and grown to hate; of noble deeds that proved useless, that broke the hearts of their doers; of betrayal without reason, of guilt without penance, of all the human miseries that have ever occurred; all this struck them, like the breath of a slaughterhouse, or the blow of a murderer. (p. 208).Have you ever read a more poetic description of despair and depression? Luckily, it is overcome, and the story ends happily with puppies and kittens and love. For a while, anyway, and isn't that the case in real life, too?