This book had a promising start. The world McKinley envisioned was different, and didn’t have the fairytale feel that her other novels tend to have. And I rather enjoyed the story’s premise—Aerin’s questionable parentage, the story that her mother died of despair upon learning she gave birth to a daughter instead of a son, Aerin’s efforts to overcome that knowledge and prove her strength by befriending Talet, her trialed efforts to synthesize the fireproofing ointment, and her efforts to learn swordsmanship for dragon slaying. Even those scenes where she faces her disability began to remind me of Eugenides from The Queen of Attolia.
However, I found the second half of the story somewhat lacking in strength. The tone of the novel seemed to regress back to McKinley’s more common fairytale style of writing, namely the miraculous healing and the neat conclusions to the battles. Also, if you’ve read any of McKinley’s later novels, you can begin to notice recurring themes that were taken from these earlier books. For instance, the army of animals that follows Aerin was a theme McKinley later reuses in Spindle's End. Also, the human-animal relationships that are developed here become more pronounced in her later works.
Though, I wasn’t as impressed with McKinley’s take on human relationships in this novel. I thought Aerin’s recognition of her love for Luthe rather sudden, even though the connection was immediately apparent on his side. And I didn’t really like Aerin’s initial interpretation of her destiny, that she was sacrificing her love for duty to Tor and her court. Yet, her interpretation does get resolved in the end, and in a way that I found somewhat acceptable. For me, the book ends as it should.
As a side note, I did like McKinley’s touch of irony in her portrayal of the dragon, Maur. On the surface, he appears to be the enemy, but if you read closely, you begin to realize that the dragon serves as the catalyst for everything important that happens to Aerin—her meeting Luthe and the recognition of her love for him, the finding of the crown, the end of the war, and the beginning of a peaceful reign. In that light, the dragon doesn’t appear to be as sinister a figure… rather interesting.