This is a classic example of the “sword and sorcery” type of novel, set in a long-ago legendary land called Damar. There the king’s daughter, flame-haired Aerin, grows up isolated and distrusted by the courtly people around her. Her mother was a commoner and, worse, came from the mysterious and demon-ridden north country; she died in childbirth, allegedly out of disappointment at bearing a daughter. And Aerin herself lacks the magical abilities that single out those born to royal blood.
Whispered about by the common people and routinely humiliated by her blueblood cousins, Aerin spends much of her time in seclusion, learning sword-fighting from Tor (the heir-apparent who loves her) and horse-riding from a crippled battle-stallion named Talat. When an ancient manuscript inspires her to take up dragon-slaying as a hobby, Aerin’s unique destiny begins to show its shape.
On her way to that destiny, though, she goes through unspeakable dangers, carrying away wounds without and within. She faces the great Black Dragon alone. She gathers a very strange army. She journeys through the shadow of death to the pinnacle of evil, where a kind of Dark Lord threatens to destroy her land and all that she loves. And she emerges with a long-lost emblem of power, to taste love, and battle, and grief, and victory.
It is a very beautifully written book, delighting all the senses with rich and vibrant imagery. It is also a deeply introspective, mature, and realistic study of the emotions of a woman torn between resentment and loyalty, loneliness and love, courage and cowardice, despair and hope. I might also mention that it succeeds in creating terror, suspense, courtly melodrama, and grimly powerful battle scenes. Have a taste of this little sample:
Still she climbed, but she no longer felt alone. Evil was with her; red evil shone in her eyes, rode on her shoulders, harried her heels; waited in the dark doorways where she would not look, fell like ash and rose like smoke from the torches. Evil was all around her, and it watched her, eyelessly, watched for her first stumble.
This book is the prequel to a 1983 Newbery Honor Book called The Blue Sword. Robin McKinley has also written The Outlaws of Sherwood, Spindle’s End, Rose Daughter, and Deerskin, as well as Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast.