Like so many readers, I first discovered Robin McKinley’s Newbery Award—winning epic fantasy novel The Hero and the Crown as a teenager. Dragged along to a yard sale with my mother, I decided to look through a jumble of old books piled into a crate marked “.10 cents each.” The novel was buried at the bottom, and while it had clearly been through hard times—the back cover was missing and the pages dogeared with use—the title intrigued me. So I paid my money and on the car ride home decided to read a few pages, just to see if I liked it.
Six hours later, I was still reading. I could not get enough of the adventures of Aerin Firehair, later known as Aerin Dragon-Killer, and her journey from shy awkward princess to the hero of Damar. In an era before ready internet access and Katniss Everdeen, Aerin’s gender combined with her hero status was groundbreaking for me. But the gender switch, while compelling, isn’t what makes The Hero and the Crown so special. The book is just really really good. McKinley’s nuanced, lush writing is beautiful. She builds the story slowly, taking the time to let readers connect with her characters. She chronicles Aerin’s pain with as much depth as she does her victories. I still remember how much I cried reading McKinley’s description of Aerin’s ride into the city of Damar: seated on her elderly war horse, Talat, injured and burnt from her battle with the great dragon Maur, her wounds a stark mark of both her bravery and her otherness.
Over the years, I’ve reread this beloved novel again and again. And each time I do, it’s as good as the first time. And each time, Aerin’s story reminds me why I will never stop loving young adult fiction and the epic fantasy genre. If you loved and still love The Hero and the Crown as much as I did, here are a few more favorites you must add to your shelf.
Shadowfell, by Juliet Marillier
The first in the trilogy of the same name, Shadowfell tells the story of Neryn, a girl with a secret—one that could get her killed. In the land of Alban, King Keldec seeks out those with magical powers and uses them for his own evil gain, and Neryn’s magical ability to see the Good Folk puts her at risk. Her only hope is to seek out Shadowfell, a rebel stronghold fighting to overthrow King Keldec. Neryn isn’t completely alone in her quest; she receives help from the Good Folk and Flint, a mysterious stranger she’s not sure she can trust. I liked Shadowfell as much for the characters as for the adventure. Neryn is by no means perfect, and Flint is definitely not endearing. But the characters’ flaws and potential for emotional growth only add to the appeal of Shadowfell. It’s clear Marillier places a premium on creating three-dimensional and less than likable characters that are as compelling as the adventure. Much like The Hero and the Crown, Shadowfell occupies that perfect place between a coming-of-age story and an epic fantasy. (The third book in the Shadowfell trilogy, The Caller, was published September 9.)
East, by Edith Pattou
Eugenia believes that the direction a child is born portends who and what they will become. When she and Arne are married, they have seven children, one for each point on the compass—all except the North compass point, because a child born facing the North will be a wanderer and is destined to break her mother’s heart. All is well until Elise, Eugenia’s beloved East-born child, dies tragically. Desperate to have another East-born child, Eugenia gives birth to Ros—who is born facing the North. Based on the Nordic fairytale East of the Sun and West of the Moon, Pattou’s book is a sweeping retelling of the classic. Yes, there are still troll queens and magic polar bears, but the story is told from several different perspectives, providing context to the characters’ actions. Despite varying narratives, East is still Rose’s story, and it is an amazing one. Unlike the uncertain and initially tentative Aerin, Rose embraces her destiny wholeheartedly and sometimes brashly. But much like Aerin, when all is dark and the task insurmountable, it is her fierce love for those she cares for that sustains her. Oh, and just like Aerin, Rose is a badass.
The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley
The Blue Sword is actually the first book in McKinley’s Damar series, published two years before prequel The Hero and the Crown. The novel is set in a future where Aerin’s heroic deeds have become the stuff of legend. In The Blue Sword, we meet Angharad “Harry” Crewe. The young orphan has found herself a stranger in a strange land after being kidnapped by Corlath, the King of the Hillfolk, and taken to the land once known as Damar. Corlath’s reasons for abducting Harry are unknown even to himself—he’s compelled to kidnap her by the magic that runs through his blood. Harry struggles to adjust to a culture and a people so unlike her own, but her life changes forever when she discovers her own magical connection to the land of Damar and to the mythical hero Lady Aerin. McKinley’s writing is as usual wonderfully engrossing, and while Harry and Aerin’s stories share a few similarities, The Blue Sword is a great novel in its own right. As an additional bonus, the novel offers a glimpse into the fate of Aerin and other beloved characters from The Hero and the Crown.
What fantasy classics do you find yourself reading again and again?