It has been a while since I wrote a book review, and it’s been a while since I started reading this one. It took a long time to get through, and while I’m very glad I did, it taught me a lot about my own tastes as a reader, as well as the difference between what those tastes actually are and what I would like to think they are.
Specifically that I enjoy dynamic, energetic, fast-paced storytelling, and The Hero and the Crown ain’t none of those things. This is an old-school fantasy novel in the vein of A Wizard of Earthsea or The Last Unicorn: slow-burning, dream-like, a meditative procession through a hero’s journey that focuses mostly on said hero.
I like it, quite a lot, but I only started liking it today, and I’ve been reading this thing for … I don’t even know how long. Over a year, I think, on and off. And most of that time was spent in a state of feverish impatience, waiting for something to happen.
Things do happen in this book, but they’re character-related things, rather than “hey look at that thing happening” things. Our hero – heroine, whatever – Aerin, is the daughter of a king and a “witch” from the North, where demons live; as such, while she is not a bastard child, she is pretty well reviled by most people, because most people are ignorant villagers and her older half-sister. The first three-fifths of this novel are mostly angst. Well-written angst, but also oddly written, because it’s from an outside perspective; third-person omniscient feels very weird when used to describe the visceral intimacy of angst, and emotion of any kind really, especially when it also tells you that the person feeling said angst is only doing so because they don’t know any better, don’t have the life experience, so on and so forth. If this was anything other than a classical fantasy novel, it would have been unbearable, but the voice works in this case – having the voice be a bit “wiser”, I guess, than the POV character brings an aura of having a story told to you, and The Hero and the Crown is a story that revels in its story-ness, and in a way reminds me of Neil Gaiman in that regard.
So, what is it about? Basically, Aerin is used to being – and feeling – ignored and unwanted, so she spends her time geeking around and reading about dragons. There haven’t been any big dragons since the Old Days, but there are still dragons about that sometimes menace villages, usually around the size of a small horse at most. In terms of “stuff happening”, she re-discovers how to create a special oil that protects people from dragon’s fire, the secret of which has eluded the greatest minds of the kingdom for centuries; she rehabilitates her father’s old war horse so that she can ride it, and then goes out and kills a dragon.
You could take care of that in about one chapter, if you really wanted to; this book takes almost half of its page-count to get there. This is because what “happens” is not as important as Aerin’s feelings and motivations along the way. Basically, she goes out to kill dragons because she doesn’t have anything else to do, no prospects or ambitions – no hope, basically, of living the kind of life that might make her happy, and of course she doesn’t know what that is, either. She wants to be valuable, and has vague thoughts of making her father proud by killing dragons, but it’s more just the fact that she’s so isolated and lonely that her thoughts and motives drift almost randomly in this direction, for lack of something to latch onto, something that might make her feel wanted.
Because it took so freaking long to get to the dragon-slaying – a bunch of stuff happens after that, and that’s where I started to like this book – and I was under the impression that this book was primarily about dragon-slaying, I lost my patience frequently while trying to push myself through the first half of this book. But once she kills the second dragon – a proper, dragon-sized dragon – and some other shit starts happening, I realised what the book was actually about and started to get into it. If you’re looking for hardcore, realism-based worldbuilding, you are in the wrong place; if you like being shown instead of told, you definitely need to read something else. And generally, I am one of those people.
But with The Hero and the Crown, I actually quite liked it. I liked other things about it, too; yes, the princess kills dragons and that’s all subversive and whatnot, but there is much more to this story than another Strong Female Character in regards to subverting gender roles, if that’s what you’re looking for. Like the fact that, while there are indeed two love-interests and they are both dudes, she doesn’t actually choose one over the other, and it’s still framed as a positive, healthy, happy resolution to her story. It’s kind of convenient in a way, as one of the dudes is immortal and the other is not, and since she becomes immortal herself she’s able to spend a mortal lifetime with one (where the story ends) and then eventually find her way back to the other one (which the story hints strongly at). On top of that, both dudes, while never meeting, know about each other and there is no jealous confrontation stuff; they just accept that she loves both of them and get on with it. Much props for that.
There’s also some typical high fantasy problematic-ness – our heroine is a pale-skinned redhead in a country full of dark-skinned brunettes, for instance, and out of the two other female characters in the book one is her jealous, bitchy older half-sister and the other is her devoted maidservant – and if that sort of thing bothers you, which it probably should, then there might be other meditative fantasy novels for you to enjoy. For me, I could overlook it because the intimacy and meditativeness, once I got into it, reminded me that I do actually enjoy this sort of story. It’s Aerin’s story, and it’s about Aerin, and I appreciated the narrow focus, honestly.
Particularly today, because I have this knot in my lower back that I’ve had since I was 16 and it decided to flare up really badly last night. As such I’ve spent the past few hours not just reading, as opposed to sitting in front of my computer and endlessly distracting myself with YouTube and WOW, but reading while lying flat on the floor with my legs hooked over my bed. I can’t tell if it’s helped at all, in terms of being able to walk around and stuff, but lying in that position was certainly a welcome relief. And a lot of what Aerin goes through is pain, physical as well as emotional, seeing as she spends a lot of time fighting dragons, teaching herself how to ride a horse and use a sword, hiking, camping in the wilderness – it was really quite cathartic, and comforting, to read about her discomfort while enduring my own. I’ve said that it tells rather than shows, but that’s mostly for plot-related stuff and ambience. When it comes to the mundane agony of Aerin’s nearly-constant discomfort, there’s a lot of showing – and telling. It works well; it feels immersive. And the third-person omniscient voice complimented that, because I could feel a connection to what Aerin was going through while still having a ready-made excuse to distance myself from it if I wanted to. I have said before that I don’t think “show don’t tell” is a good hard-and-fast rule, and The Hero and the Crown proves that point emphatically. Both are good – you just have to know when to use each of them, and sometimes, how to use them together.
Do not read this book for the plot or world-building. Read it for the slow-burn of timeless storybook ambience, and the intimacy with the character and her experiences. I do think I need something a little more fast-paced now to shake things up, but just like coming off a fast-paced, pulpy urban fantasy novel and diving straight into this book was jarring, the thought of doing the opposite is the same. Maybe I’ll give it a day or two.
And in the meantime, I have some writing plans of my own slowly gestating, waiting to be birthed in what is hopefully the not-too-distant future. I’m certainly looking forward to that.