Tag Archives: YA

The Hero and the Crown — Robin McKinley

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Robin McKinley does literate fantasy with enormous intelligence and a sure command of story. Her re-imaginations of Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty are revelatory and emotionally satisfying. Her heroines are strong and believable in ways more female protagonists should be. The Hero and the Crown won a Newbery Medal for its characters as much as its flawless craft. The story draws you into a world that seems real from its first detail to its last litter of puppies in the middle of the royal featherbed. It is Aerin’s story but it is a classic hero’s journey and every girl who reads it should get a few ideas. Every boy who reads it should re-examine a few.

Aerin is the king’s daughter, child of a mother who died at her birth, a mother who was considered by the good folk of Damaria to be a witch. So Aerin’s place in the kingdom is far from assured and she is the merciless taunt of her gorgeous and shallow cousin who schemes for power and position. The people believe Aerin may be a witch-child, a sol who has no apparent magical gifts, uncommon blazing red hair and white skin and a tendency toward unladylike pursuits.

From earliest childhood, Aerin has been inseparable from her friend Tor, the appointed first sola or heir to a king with no male children. Tor teaches her swordplay and confides in her but even Tor can’t define where Aerin fits in and what she is meant to be. She heals and tames her father’s injured war horse who has been turned out to pasture, teaching herself to ride hands-free and wield sword and spear on horseback. When she discovers an old formula for a fire-shielding ointment, she determines to perfect the recipe and become a dragon-killer—the dragons being fiercely volcanic vermin that terrorize the countryside, although they bear little resemblance to the legendary flying monsters that are long gone from Damaria.

Arlbeth, the king, refuses to take his daughter to battle with threatening dissidents from the North so Aerin sets out in secret to destroy Maur, the horrifying Black Dragon now returned, a massive evil presence laying waste to villages and farms at the outskirts of the kingdom. Her adventures are epic, her encounters deadly and the consequences of the lethal struggle with Maur set events in motion that spin wildly through tragedy, deep magic, heroism and destruction to the story’s conclusion.

McKinley has written another terrific tale, a fantasy with no fairytale princess but a tough, smart and battle-scarred heroine who shies away from the people who mistrust her and is desperate to prove her place. Aerin is funny, irreverent and brave. She is also impulsive, awkward and a miserable dancer. Her uncanny empathy with animals and the powerful magic she doesn’t realize she has propel her on a journey into a Tolkienesque hell that she undertakes as if fate compels her. Fate does. Aerin is no ordinary mortal but she is an extraordinary heroine and her quest captivates us. I rooted for her, even as I wanted to shout, “Go back! This is a really bad idea!” But there is no turning back. The losses are losses that can’t be redeemed; the victories are bittersweet. The story unspools as intensely visual as a film and I was sorry to leave the world McKinley created as I turned the last page.

 The Hero and the Crown    Robin McKinley | Firebrand 2002

Gifts — Ursula K. Le Guin

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The idea for booklolly appeared as the August hurricane ended. It wasn’t much of a hurricane if you lived in Manhattan–we are pretty immune to weather here. Nothing like those tropical blows that turn life upside down in places like Florida or the Caribbean. To be immersed in a hurricane is electric and exhilarating, not to mention potentially dangerous. But Manhattan is not Marathon or Miami so the hurricane was even less remarkable than the earthquake, although it was interesting to have them in the same week.

Then the gods struck. I was musing on my favorite literary quote —You must change your life–and wondering how under heaven to do that when the thought popped up: Read. Read a book every day. Completely crazy. Perfect though, so I tried it, gratefully setting aside the unrewarding slog through tedious, underpaid work for a faceless client and opening a book. Ursula Le Guin is an old favorite in my library and I counted on Gifts to be a good read. Not disappointed.

It took some time to convince myself that a year-long challenge to read a book a day wasn’t insane, irresponsible and just plain impossible. Actually, it might be impossible. But I can’t ignore it. Reading Ursula Le Guin was fabulous so I made a blog, collected a bunch of books, tried reading a few at one day each, discovered how all-consuming that would be, and decided to do it anyway. Hurricanes and earthquakes will seem like child’s play after a year with 365 books in it. Here is my debut effort with more, much more, to come.

Gifts is positioned as a YA book but, like all of Le Guin’s writing, it is a story for anyone who loves to read. Her own gift is for making worlds in clear, fluid prose and spinning a tale that is readable and thoughtful. The beginning of chapter two seemed like a blessing for this mad venture to read a book every day for a year to change my world.

Le Guin writes in the voice of Orrec, the story’s protagonist:

To see that your life is a story while you’re in the middle of living it may be a help to living it well. It’s unwise, though, to think you know how it’s going to go, or how it’s going to end. That’s to be known only when it’s over.

And even when it’s over, even when it’s somebody else’s life, somebody who lived a hundred years ago, whose story I’ve heard told time and again, while I’m hearing it I hope and fear as if I didn’t know how it would end; and so I live the story and it lives in me.

Orrec lives in the Upland tribes with his brantor father, the ruler of their tribe, and his Lowland mother, a storyteller who came to the Uplands as the spoils of a raid. The people of the Uplands have strange gifts that allow them to summon animals, twist bodies into grotesque shapes, wipe a mind clean as a slate and “unmake” something, or someone, into a lifeless mass. Unmaking is Orrec’s father’s gift and it is passed from father to son, just as a mother’s gift is passed to her daughter.

Gry, the daughter of an animal caller, has the gift but refuses to use it to lure game to the hunt. Instead, she is a powerful animal trainer and Orrec’s best friend. The two explore the boundaries of their hillside world, befriending a stranger who wanders into their lands and telling him tales of the doings of the Upland people. Threats from neighboring tribes are a constant danger and Orrec’s inability to summon his gift imperils his tribe and angers his father. But one day Orrec’s gift bursts forth with terrible consequences and he learns he cannot control it.

To prevent the destruction of everything he loves, Orrec becomes blind – what he cannot see he cannot destroy with a glance. As he discovers how to navigate a world without sight, his mother tells him the tales of her people and Gry teaches a dog to guide him through the forests and trails. But tragedy strikes, ripping open the fabric of ordinary days and forcing Orrec to confront the truth of his life and his real gifts. In the pain of loss Orrec must find the way forward and decide, once and for all, how to use what he has been given.

Gifts is an allegory for a society half-immersed in darkness and the steep costs of turning away from the light. The characters are sympathetic and the details of the world give it heft and shape. It’s hard to read Gifts and not compare its hardscrabble combative culture to the chaos that surrounds us. But the thread of hope that delivers a satisfying end to the adventure is the centrality of story to the plot.

It is our stories that weave our world, that send us into hiding or battle, that summon our gifts. The book was good way to set out on a year’s journey – from a master storyteller, a genuine gift.

Gifts — Ursula K. Le Guin | First Harcourt paperback edition 2006