This is the first time I've read this book as an adult—mostly because I love, love, love The Blue Sword and this book kind of goes out of its way to undermine expectations set by that book for Damar's past. I didn't remember much of this book—mostly just a vague sense of this not being my expected Damar, really (because my memory really sucks, not because the book isn't memorable).So I was gratified that the book holds up so well. Better, really, because I came away from it not only renewing my love for Aerin, but also feeling better about her fate than my previous vague unease. McKinley goes way out of her way to play against expectations raised by The Blue Sword, even starting out with a warning up front that even the climate is different than you might expect it to be. Aerin's Damar is courtly and well settled with a traditional structure of royalty and fealty that is very different than in Harry and Corlath's day. Even more surprisingly, Aerin is a social outcast. Daughter of the king, true, but the offspring of a suspect, foreign, mother and held in polite aversion when not actively hated. Knowing that she will become the symbol of her people’s strength and universally loved only intensifies my sympathy with her as she goes through the suspicion and open mistrust that even her loving father has to sometimes accommodate. I have a hard time with this part of the novel, though the disconnect between my expectations and the story is only part of the reason why. In addition, Aerin is kind of passive for this first part. She has no aspiration, is withdrawn, and spends as much of her time alone as she possibly can—even avoiding those who love her and wish to help if only they could think of how.And the pacing is slow to start, almost pastoral, really. This isn't helped by the narrative taking a really large time jump so early in the novel. We see Aerin steeling herself to request to accompany her father on his campaign against a rebel baron and then take a jump back three (or was it six?) years. We don't get back to that request for most of the rest of that section (I didn't count, but it was a goodly chunk—60 pages? 1/8th of the book? Sizeable at any rate). I'm not sure what McKinley wanted to accomplish with such a large interval, but I don't think it really worked—at least not for me.Anyway, Once Aerin starts taking charge of her own destiny, the book really picks up. I already liked her for her quiet good sense and determination. As she begins forging her own path, she clinches my sympathy and desire for her to succeed. It's here that we begin to see that there is more to her than we have suspected. What in the later part of the book is flagged as her dual nature (both of-Damar and not-of-Damar) becomes more visible even as her solitude becomes more pronounced (solitude despite Tor's obvious desire to be more a part of her life).And here's where the spoilers begin. I'll still flag it, though, because even though practically everybody I know has read the book, it's just plain courtesy to do so.(view spoiler)[ Having such a poor memory means that I was surprised afresh by Aerin falling in love with Luthe. This is McKinley's biggest play against expectation because anybody who read The Blue Sword knows that she is destined to marry Tor—who we already have seen loves her dearly (and suspect that she loves him back). The romantic in me lapped up this relationship as it built during Aerin's convalescence and culminated after defeating Agsded—even as my heart broke knowing it to be a temporary idyll.This is also where McKinley's careful groundwork paid off because it is even possible for the reader to allow Aerin to love both Luthe and Tor, more or less simultaneously. That's extremely tough to pull off without alienating the reader's affection and/or respect for her or one or the other of her loves (i.e. can you really respect King Arthur without hating Lancelot? and what kind of inconstant bitch is Guinevere, anyway?). That I only just now realized there might be an Arthurian parallel is tribute to how adroitly McKinley pulls this off (though I expect treading so very lightly over Luthe's emotions as they part was something of a cheat). In the end, I can be happy for her time with Tor (and, by extension, her time dedicated to Damar’s needs), even as I anticipate her eventual reunion with Luthe. (hide spoiler)]
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