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Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley

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The book was faded with age, and the style of lettering was strange to her, so she had to puzzle out some of the words; and some of the words were archaic and unfamiliar, so she had to puzzle out the meanings. But it was worth it, for this book told her stories more exciting than the ones she made up for herself before she fell asleep at night. And so, as she read, she first learned of the old dragons.

Damar had dragons still; little ones, dog-sized, nasty, mean-tempered creatures who would fry a baby for supper and swallow it in two gulps if they could; but they had been beaten back into the heavy forest and the wilder Hills by Aerin’s day. They still killed an occasional unwary hunter, for they had no fear, and they had teeth and claws as well as fire to subdue their prey, but they were no longer a serious threat. Arlbeth heard occasionally of one—or of a family, for they most often hunted in families—that was harassing a village or an outlying farm, and when that happened a party of men with spears and arrows—swords were of little use, for if one were close enough to use a sword, one was close enough to be badly burned—went out from the City to deal with them. Always they came back with a few more unpleasant stories of the cunning treachery of dragons; always they came back nursing a few scorched limbs; occasionally they came back a horse or a hound the less.

But there was no glamour in dragon-hunting. It was hard, tricky, grim work, and dragons were vermin. The folk of the hunt, the thotar, who ran the king’s dogs and provided meat for the royal household, would have nothing to do with dragons, and dogs once used for dragons were considered worthless for anything else.

There were still the old myths of the great dragons, huge scaled beasts many times larger than horses; and it was sometimes even said that the great dragons flew, flew in the air, with wingspreads so vast as to blacken the sun. The little dragons had vestigial wings, but no one had ever seen or heard of a dragon that could lift its thick squat body off the ground with them. They beat their wings in anger and in courtship, as they raised their crests; but that was all. The old dragons were no more nor less of a tale than that of flying dragons.

But this book took the old dragons seriously. It said that while the only dragons humankind had seen in many years were little ones, there were still one or two of the great ones hiding in the Hills; and that one day the one or two would fly out of their secret places and wreak havoc on man, for man would have forgotten how to deal with them. The great dragons lived long; they could afford to wait for that forgetfulness....

What can I say, this is the first "real" book I read. I started reading very young and I started with the Baby-sitter's Club series. Even then, I knew the books were formulaic and regularly skipped the chpters that were always the same information on the backstory. But I was a determined little kid and probably read over 150 of these books. And yes, I actually had my parents buy them for me and still own them. But then I went to my school's library and randomly checked out Hero and the Crown. This was the first book I ever read more than once and the first book I ever spent serious time and effort tracking down to buy. For a eight year old, that is saying something. I love this book still and my old worn copy is still highly treasured. This story is complex enough that both adults and children will get something out of it. And every time I reread it I find something new to think about. And since I am now 23 and still have been known to pull out this book, that is not just some line.

This is classic high fantasy, complete with a princess and a dragon, but the romance is more mature than one would ever expect to find and the main character is osmeone just strong enough to respect and with enough faults to emphasize with. While, over time I have found other books and authors, The Hero and the Crown and Robin McKinley's writing in general will always have a very special place in my heart and on my bookshelf.
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