Classic high fantasy with a dragon-slaying princess. What more needs to be said? This is a good, wonderfully satisfying read, though the fact that I found the premise to be a neat twist says volumes about standard fantasy fare and my expectations of it. McKinley is a great writer, but without Aerin (the “hero” of the title), it would be fairly indistinguishable from the usual swords-and-sorcerey stuff.
As I was reading it, the book made me think of classical music, oddly enough. The plot is the archetypal hero’s journey, but McKinley does something subtle with it. Instead of a straight-forward arc of exposition, conflict, tension, climax, resolution, complete with final show-down between the Hero and the Bad Guy, it’s almost as if the book is a sonata. Instead of a big climax there are several crescendos, themes and leit-motifs introduced, developed, and restated. Aerin’s battle with Maur the Black Dragon is only the beginning of her adventure, instead of the culmination. The arch-villain of the book, Asged, is introduced only in the last quarter of the book, and is defeated within a single chapter. He is, like Tolkein’s Sauron, the least interesting character, and pretty darn flat. In the meantime there are two near-death scenes, a few more dragon battles, an interlude of study with an immortal sorcerer, and a final battle between the Damarians and the northern demons. The dragons, the kingdom of Damar, the evil magician, it’s all mostly background for Aerin’s personal growth. Turns out this is really more of a bildungroman than a hero’s journey; or, maybe McKinley’s saying that the maturation of a young woman is a hero’s journey, in the end. Aerin’s a king’s daughter but she’s also an outcast in her court, since her late mother is rumored to have been a witch that enchanted the king. She’s a pretty delightful character, smart, energetic, and a bit of a dry wit. She tends to make sarcastic comments like “This is typical. On my way to gods know what unspeakable doom, and I break out in a rash.” I like her because she’s scared shitless everytime she fights a dragon, because she’s fallible and human and gets the crap beat out of her, because she’s not a Xena Warrior Princess. Frankly, none of the other characters can really hold up next to her, not even the love interest. Plus, she has a trusty and loyal steed, which every hero needs. Talat the war-horse is probably the best drawn character after his mistress.
Hm. So maybe it’s not so indistinguisable after all. Maybe McKinley’s using the cliched trappings of high fantasy to her advantage. I don’t know. I do know that I’d give my right arm to see a movie version, just for the battle scene with Maur.
Well, anyway, I’ve decided to bite the bullet and finally read what remains of Austen’s work after the novels. The Watsons and Sanditon, which are unfinished (and I weep at the knowledge, I love Sanditon already and I’m only a few chapters in), Lady Susan, and the juvenelia, all in my pretty Everyman’s Library edition. I’m also working on L’Armoire magique (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for you English types), in preparation for the movie, of which I have high hopes and apprehensions.