Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley

Sherman, let us once more enter the way back machine.

This time let us go way back to 1984.  Bad hair.  Creepy blue eyeliner.  MTV still played music.  I was nine years old and in the fifth grade.  My best friend was my big brother, only he had gone to junior high and our Star Wars universe lay dormant.  My other best friend had moved away, and I was thinking it was time to woman up from my slight, slightly younger than everyone else, and shorn haired tom boy self.

RoseAnna knew about horses (and from the girl down the street, I understood this was necessary to being a girl).  RoseAnna played with My Little Ponies instead of Star Wars toys and dinosaurs.  RoseAnna wore sweaters and skirts, but still was completely fearless about twirling on the monkey bars so that her skirt swirled and her underwear showed.  We'd been in class together since the first grade, but never connected.  I determined now was the time to connect.

After lunch every day we had an hour of independent reading.  Quiet was enforced.  So I had to be daring.  I set down the second of Robert Asprin's Myth books and strolled across the open U of the classroom to where RoseAnna sat, ostentatiously to ask out teacher a question.  As I passed, I let the low words, "I like that book," drop from my lips and onto RoseAnna's desk.  She was reading Anne of Green Gables, which even I was a girl enough to have read.

"Thanks."  She looked up.  "I'm rereading it.  I liked that book you did your book report on."

I had just done a book report on Another Fine Myth, as told by Aahz.  "I've got the whole series."  I forgot I was walking to the teacher.  "I could loan them to you.  Only maybe, don't show your parents."

She chewed her lip.  "I have this book you might like--The Blue Sword.  I could bring it for you."

Thus started a beautiful friendship, which, actually, still exists.  Also, a very special place in my heart for The Blue Sword.  So of course, I reread it now and then--more as a homage to friendship than as a literary work.  However, the last time I read it, I read with a writer's eye.  When I first read this book, it was shelved in the big people section of fantasy.  Now I often see it in with YA, or even both.

The first scene of Harry watching the light play on her fork and orange juice while contemplating her place as someone else's poor relation and how she ended up in the desert, largely conquered land of Damar.  Not only do we receive vital background and a taste for the delicious world building to come, Harry becomes a solid character in our minds almost immediately--restless, unconventional, bored out of her mind, but dedicated to doing her brother proud, since he has explained she must hold up standards, and not go about as she did at Home--which is all their homeland across the sea is ever called.

This first few pages is perhaps the most stunning weave of virtually everything you need for the book as I have ever known.  Despite the fact that the next few chapters are fairly quiet as we deepen Harry's place in the colonial world and come to further understand her love of this desert land, if not the trappings, and the hills--the only unconquered lands--that call to her in the distance, I read rabidly, without notice that not much but character and world building is going on.

The world created is something I have not seen before or since.  The Homelanders put one very much in mind of the British in India, though the lands do not.  They have failed to conquer the Hillfolk, a proud people that stand on the precipice between being domesticated, and the lands of their traditional, and not quite human, enemies the Northerners.  When the Northerners rumble towards war once more, the Hill king, Corlath, puts pride aside and goes to ask the Homelanders--Outlanders to him--to join him in the fight.  Even Homelanders know Hill kings are supposed to hold magic, but Harry is unprepared to face it herself, and even less prepared to be stolen from her bed at it's urging.

As a stranger, Harry makes the perfect vessel to learn the Hillfolk culture.  She is more key to the war than anyone, including Corlath could have known.  As Corlath tries to ease her into the culture and her place in it, a bond forms.  Friendship turns into a ginger romance.

Reading back through this time, I was still heavily impressed with McKinley's world building abilities.  Her characters were all still fresh.  I admired Harry's both independence and flexibility in a situation she never could have imagined being in.  Despite the fact she has been kidnaped, the bonds she forms with the Hillfolk are believable.  Even her supporting cast breathes with life.  And yes, I'm still in love with Corlath, whose pride and awareness that he has done a terrible thing to Harry, even though his Kelar--magic--says he must--make him lovably awkward and yet tender with her.

I had one qualm that I noticed for the first time, perhaps because I am used to reading this as a child.  The build up to the romance is rather odd.  I believe they genuinely care about each other as friends.  Then I genuinely believe they love each other at the end of the book.  But for me there was an odd gap between the two.  Trying not to add any more spoilers than I already have, almost a gap, rather than a progression, is used to create romance out of what was friendship.  I miss the progression.  I wanted some growing sense between them.  It is mostly in Harry's but sometimes Corlath's viewpoint.  I wanted, perhaps not even knowledge on their parts, but those slight touches of confusion, sense, thought.  Oddly, I thought Corlath's love was established more clearly than Harry's.

If this is a YA book I applaud it for a strong, independent think and acting, brave and intelligent female protagonist.  If it is an adult book, I do the same.

And yes.  There are lots of horses.


  1. Harry was kidnapped into a great adventure that helped her figure out who she really was, but I wouldn't have wanted to face some of the choices she had to make.