Disclosure: I obtained my copy of this book at a Friends of the Library sale; it's a library overstock discard. I do not know the author nor have I ever had any communication with her about this book or any other matter. I am an author.
Trigger warning - animals:
None of the named/main animals are harmed. Well, except for the dragons.
I chose this for the Supernatural square on the Halloween Bingo because it's a more or less standalone fantasy. It's described as a "prequel" to The Blue Sword series, which I know absolutely nothing about.
The story revolves around Aerin, the young daughter of Arlbeth, the king of Damar. Her mother was his second wife, and since Aerin is a girl, she is not eligible to inherit the kingdom. Tor, who is a cousin or something, is considered the heir. But her mother was also a foreigner and accused of being a witch, and Aerin has inherited some of those witchy qualities, so she never feels as if she belongs. What she hasn't inherited, however, is any Gift, or magic ability. Members of the royal family all exhibit tiny amounts of it, but Aerin has none. This makes her even more despondent.
The first half of the novel details Aerin's efforts to find a way to make herself feel worthwhile. She comes across as a dedicated, determined, and compassionate person. (Frankly, after Jamaica Inn and Mary Yellan, Aerin was so welcome!) Some of the action here kind of drags as it goes into maybe too much detail, too many trials and errors, but Aerin learns and grows through it all.
The second half deals with her ultimate quest. Here there's much more action and angst, though I have to say there were a lot of resemblances to the final action of The Lord of the Rings, especially the tower. What made the confrontation in this book different was twofold:
First, it was very short, just a few pages. Aerin has only been aware of her enemy's existence since late in the book, and their final meeting is brief. Tolkien built up the existence of Sauron and the other enemies from the beginning, as did J.K. Rowling with the Harry Potter series. In The Hero and the Crown, however, McKinley doesn't reveal even the existence of Agsded until page 164 or so.
Second, Aerin has no idea what weapons she has against Agsded or what they can or can't do. Her victory is achieved more through blind luck than either strategy or skill. This ignorance on her part shows up again when she returns to Damar and no one, including Aerin, seems to know that there is a magical talisman working against her people in their war.
There were some very interesting twists to the story, especially the one at the end regarding the passage of time. I have a feeling that may have played out further in the subsequent books after this prequel.
I left off the final half-star on this rating for a couple of reasons. The writing was great and there were some really wonderful details to the story that raised it above the ordinary. I loved the purple grass, for instance. What bothered me, however, were the few bits of invented language for ordinary things that came with no explanation. There were castes of people that I never really quite understood. Sol and sola (princess and prince, respectively, I think) seemed unnecessary when king and queen were used without invented substitutions.
But the main reason the book fell shy of the full five stars was that Aerin's victories came too easily. She struggled and suffered, yes, but all of her actual confrontations with the enemy were over quickly. She didn't triumph without effort, but her opponents fell so quickly that they hardly seemed worthy of her.
Of course, the very fact that, ahem, she's a GIRL hero . . . . .
and she apparently has two lovers???!!!
All in all, an excellent read. Recommended.