This, my friends, is how young adult fantasy is done. In The Blue Sword, Robin McKinley has created a world out of whole cloth and polished it until it shines. Or in this case, until it is a dusty desert full of horse riding warriors, a dwindling magic, demon barbarians invading from the north, and civilized white men invading from across the ocean. McKinley is a master of prose, and this book has stood the test of time for almost 25 years now.
The Blue Sword is the story of Harry Crewe — don’t you dare call her by her given name of Angharad — who, upon the death of her parents, is sent to live at a fort on the Homeland frontier with her brother who is in the colonial army. Unlike most of the colonists, Harry is fascinated by the desert, and when Corlath, the leader of the Free Hillfolk of Damar, comes to the Homeland fort to negotiate for assistance with the invaders from the north, she is mesmerized by the power and magic glowing in his golden eyes. Corlath, compelled by the mysterious and magical kelar, kidnaps Harry and carries her off into the desert with him and his men. Harry soon finds herself mysteriously at home in this new culture and begins training to take part in the laprun trials, the warrior trials for the Damarians. But when her understanding of her own role clashes against her feelings for Corlath and the Damarian people, she abandons the only happiness she has known and fulfills the responsibilities she knows are hers.
There are two points that I feel need to be addressed here, that normally would drive me crazy about a story. First, the heroine gets kidnapped by the hero, and then they fall in love. Second, the white person comes in and out-natives the natives. For some reason, neither of these bothers me in The Blue Sword. Harry is not kidnapped out of lust or love, but as part of a purpose that neither she nor Corlath understand at the time. There is no forced intimacy that turns into affection, but rather an emotional relationship that slowly develops over time and is based on shared interests. As for the white woman coming in to be better at native culture than the natives, she works hard — and on stimulants, which may give some readers pause — to master her skill set as quickly as possible, and then ends up leading not the natives, but her own people. Her lack of understanding of the Damarian culture actually causes significant problems for her in trying to accomplish her goals. And there’s one other reason why this doesn’t bother me, the way it made me rant about Avatar, but I won’t include that here for spoiler reasons.
The slowly evolving relationship between Harry and Corlath is one of the finest I have ever read in young adult fantasy. What could easily have been just another coming of age story in the hands of a lesser author becomes a gem of a tale. The Blue Sword has a permanent place on my shelf of honor. I’ve read this book multiple times over the last two decades and it is as magical the fifth or sixth time as it is the first. It is highly recommended for all readers, not just young adult audiences. The Blue Sword will not disappoint.
~Ruth Arnell (2010)
Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword is a sequel (of sorts) to her earlier novel The Hero and the Crown. I say “of sorts” because it’s set so many years after the original story that only one character — an immortal — appears in both books. For all intents and purposes, this is less of a continuation as it is a brand new story, with only the legacy of Lady Aerin, Dragon Killer, to inform parts of the plot.
Harry Crewe (short for Angharad) is a young woman who goes to join her older brother in the foreign country of Damar, a colonial town and military outpost. Although the fantasy genre makes it easy to assume everything is set in the Middle Ages, The Blue Sword takes place in what feels like an alternative early 19th century, involving two sects of people who could be roughly interpreted as white colonizers and native desert nomads. Whether it reminds you more of the American Wild West or the British Raj probably depends on where you live.
Harry quickly grows to love the desert, though she’s half-frightened, half-intrigued by rumours of Corlath, the Hillfolk king. It’s only when the two of them come face-to-face that Harry’s purpose in Damar becomes clear — at least to the Hillfolk. She will become known as Harimad to the Damarians: the woman chosen to wield the Blue Sword Gonturan, which once belonged to the great Lady Aerin.
There are a lot of standard fantasy tropes at work here: the chosen one, a destiny that’s decided by a person’s bloodline, love growing between our heroine and her kidnapper (the book was first published in 1982, but these days you can’t help but wince a little) but McKinley does a stand-up job of fleshing out these familiar plot-points and wrapping them in some fascinating world-building. The culture, language, beliefs and customs of the Damarians are rich and interesting without going overboard into excessive detail, and the pacing is swift enough to keep the pages turning.
All that said, in the inevitable comparisons to The Hero and the Crown, it’s Aerin and her story that I prefer. Harry is nice enough, but she’s remarkably incurious and unfazed about the fact she’s kidnapped from her home by complete strangers to be trained as a warrior for reasons she doesn’t understand, and there’s a marked (though probably deliberate) contrast to Aerin when it comes to what fate has in store for Harry. She follows the path that’s been set out for her, but Aerin took destiny into her own hands when it came to her ambition of slaying dragons.
I’ve mentioned this in plenty of my other reviews, but I have an odd relationship with McKinley’s books. Though I recognize that she’s a very good writer, I have trouble finding an emotional connection to her characters and their stories. Yet I always seem to come back for more, searching for that elusive path into full appreciation of her work. There are plenty of things I enjoy: her careful prose, her imaginative twists on expectations, her three-dimensional female protagonists, and certainly the fact that she can write a fantasy story with a beginning, middle, and end (instead of stretching it out into endless sequels).
So I enjoyed The Blue Sword for its great world-building, strong female lead, and interesting moral conundrum (though it ultimately doesn’t lead to any serious consequences). Harry’s obstacles — both physical and mental — are treated seriously and have an impact on her life, though she’s never quite as proactive as I would have liked. A good read, even a great one — but I still haven’t cracked the McKinley nut.
~Rebecca Fisher (2018)