“I can still hunt and fish and ride,” she said. “But I miss the swordplay. I know you haven’t much spare time these days—” She hesitated, calculating which approach would be likeliest to provoke the response she desired. “And I know there’s no reason for it but—I’m big enough now I could carry one of the boys’ training swords. Would you—”
“Train you?” he said. He was afraid he knew where her thoughts were tending, although he tried to tell himself that this was no worse than teaching her to fish. He knew that even if he did grant her this it would do her no good; it didn’t matter that she was already a good rider, that she was, for whatever inbred or circumstantial reasons, less silly than any of the other court women; that he knew from teaching her other things that he could probably teach her to be a fair swordswoman. He knew that for her own sake he should not encourage her now.
The gods prevent her from asking me anything I must not give, he thought, and said aloud, “Very well.”
Author: Robin McKinley
Synopsis: Aerin is the king’s daughter, but her identity has always been doubted by those who believed her mother to be a witch. Living out of sight, introverted and fiercely independent, Aerin’s only companions are her nurse Teka, her cousin Tor, and her father’s injured war-horse, Talat. The loneliness provides her with opportunities, however—to learn swordplay, to rediscover an ancient dragon-fire repellent, and to prove herself worthy of a heritage more powerful than she or her country could have dreamed.
Notes: Winning reader sympathy for a brooding, often ill and depressed character can be challenging, but McKinley made her Aerin lovable from the first chapters. Throughout the entirety of Part One, which is mostly backstory—albeit perfectly good story—Aerin fights for every bit of esteem she gains, from readers or from her people. Fighting comes naturally to Aerin; she fights her paralysis, the suspicion around her birth, the snobbery of her cousins Galanna and Perlith, her horse’s injury, and dragons. She fights silently for the most part, but the reader sees the facts.
It helps, perhaps, that she is hated by two real toadies and loved by the eminently adorable Tor. The latter is the perfect sort of fantasy hero: not too unrealistic in his goodness or in his passion for the heroine, but just at the upper limits of both. Aerin occasionally dismisses his attention as the feeling “of a farmer’s son for his pet chicken”, but her failure to appreciate Tor’s interest is excusable in that it’s primarily a failure to appreciate herself.
Teka is a likable character as well, but Talat, the crippled war-horse, is the real charmer of the book. Vain and stubborn, he and Aerin form a particularly well-suited pair as they learn to work together and go on to dragon-hunting. The character development, in both Aerin and Talat, is superb. The worldbuilding, accomplished almost entirely through Aerin’s narrowly-seen perspective, is likewise fantastic; McKinley has a finely-tempered gift for creating both character and fantasy realm in stunning detail.
The only difficulty is that nearly all of this is contained in Part One.
In Part Two, the story changes. The great dragon fight is a natural (and expected) progression from the early events, but Luthe enters the story out of nowhere, disconnected from everything relative to the previous plot lines except for Aerin’s mother’s history. Events take on a dreamlike nature, and the villain's existence comes as even more of a surprise than blond, overconfident, mildly annoying Luthe's. The great cats and dogs may have symbolized something, but they too were unexpected additions that felt a little out of place.
The ensuing mage battle seemed a little hard to follow. It provided Aerin with the necessary answers and resolution about her birthright, but no one can accuse McKinley of taking the story in an entirely predictable direction, despite aspects of the ending.
It is possible—just possible—that the Luthe plot detour was meant to be symbolic. There were strong hints of it, in his healing Aerin from the dragon’s lies, in the relationship of mortality and immortality, and in the general retreat-like peace of his home. I’ve never heard it claimed that McKinley is a Christian, but I certainly would have bought into the imagery, whether placed by intent or by the influence of tradition, had it not been for one odd detail.
Spoilers follow—as does a content advisory, for those who wish to know.
While romance in stories is often oversimplified, and there’s both psychological potential and historical precedent for the concept of one person being in love with two people at once, McKinley’s handling of it is a bit startling. Neither Aerin nor Luthe have any scruples whatsoever about sleeping together—no thought for marriage even though marriage is the clear norm in Aerin's country, no concern over Tor's feelings, no worry over whether Aerin might get pregnant right before riding out to defend her people, nor even any first-time shyness. The casual sex took the life out of both romances, damaged reader respect and sympathy for Aerin, and degraded Luthe from "mildly annoying" to "jerk who takes advantage of his girlfriend."
The whole setup is explained with the idea of Aerin's having a twofold destiny—a fascinating idea, but one that this admittedly traditional reader would have found both more believable and more satisfying had sex not been treated as such an inconsequential event.
Aside from the above difficulty, the book proved enjoyable overall, and the ending resolved mostly to satisfaction. Much of Part Two would probably come out clearer, and certainly less surprising, upon a re-read—and I may in fact decide to give it a re-read after The Blue Sword, which to my embarrassment I find that I should probably have read first.
Recommendation: Read it for a carefully-described, intensive, often beautiful look into one fantasy heroine’s life.