The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Aerin is the daughter of Damar's king and a woman from the north, whom everyone refers to as the "witch-woman." Shunned and feared among the people, Aerin finds companionship with a lame warhorse, Talat, and teaches herself to slay dragons. Her dragon-slaying leads her to the truth about her heritage and victory over the new scourge that plagues Damar.
This was the first Robin McKinley book I ever read as a teenager, and it continues to be one of my favorites of all time. Aerin is brilliantly characterized as a young woman who doesn't think much of herself--mostly because few others think much of her, either--but manages to overcome these self-doubts and grow up to become a strong, independent woman. Yet she continues to occasionally worry that she is doing something wrong, or that her people dislike her, or deal with any number of other self-esteem issues, as one would; there is no magical solution to her childhood troubles.
The pacing and plotting are also spot-on; this was the first book I recall reading that isn't told chronologically, and while it was confusing to a teenager, now I find it brilliant and perfect. The early incidents in Aerin's life are meaningless without the context of her later life, and beginning nearly in the middle of the story and telling the earlier tales through Aerin's memory is nothing less than perfect.
It's always wonderful to re-read a book from your childhood or teenaged years and find it just as perfect as you thought it then. This is one of those books that does exactly that.
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