Week 6, Book 4: The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
Goodreads Rating: 4/5 – “really liked it”
Where I Got This Book: I picked up The Blue Sword at the used bookstore back in my hometown when I was there over winter holidays. I hadn’t gone looking for it, but was just browsing the shop for anything that looked interesting – and I spotted this. A delightfully well-used paperback copy of TBS with some gorgeous cover art in classic fantasy paperback style. The front cover is held on, low down on the spine, by strategically layered Scotch tape, the edges of the pages have gone slightly yellow and creases mar the spine and covers, white showing through where the colour has peeled off. I’m something of a sucker for used books… particularly the scent of them. And this copy of TBS is a prime example of that. I love taking in used books and giving them, at least for a time, a new home.
The Book and Me: I’ve actually read TBS once before, many years ago. Enough years ago that it meets my rules for “must not have read in past 5 years”. I remember loving it, but not a lot more. I did remember the title, however, for a very long time, which is unusual. I’m usually quite crap at remembering titles of books I own, let alone ones I just borrow from libraries (which is how I read this, the first time). As you may notice, its taken me longer than usual to get around to finishing this book. I suspect part of that is because it is, for all that more than 5 years are past, a reread and so there is less urgency in me to finish it. But mostly I’ve been delayed by busyness in school and life.
My Rating: I have yet to rate a book 5/5 on Goodreads this year, if I recall correctly. TBS comes quite close to deserving the “it was amazing”. Really, if I could give half-points this would be a 4.5, because I more than “really liked it” – I love this book. Loved it the first time and still in love with it now. It is a sheer delight to read and not at all for nostalgic reasons – although I do suspect this is one of those books which has had significant influence on me in my tastes, beliefs, and writing.
Potential Spoilers Beneath Cut
What I Love About This Book: Close to everything. I love the main character, Harry, who is a girl in her older teens (or such is the sense I get – we are never given an exact age). I love the horses and how they are written – it is obvious in the writing that the author, McKinley, knows horses. I love the opening line, the plot, the writing, and the setting. I love the sweeping adventure and the grandeur of the described landscape. I love that this isn’t the typical epic fantasy novel.
The opening line is fascinating from a writer’s point of view. What other book opens with: “She scowled at her glass of orange juice.”? Especially what other fantasy book? With that very line, we know this isn’t your typical stand-in-for-medieval-Europe type fantasy setting. And it isn’t. The time and setting it hearkens to, in terms of our world, is late 19th or early 20th century. There are telegraphs, trains, and… colonialism. And that is something which fascinates me about this book. The setting is in Daria (or so the Homelanders – the colonists/colonial power – call it), and the only hints we get of the empire is it being called “Home” or “Homeland”, and the colonists being called “Homelanders”. I don’t think we learn a single actual place-name from the Homeland in the entire book.
I suspect it would be possible to write an entire essay analyzing the use of a colonial setting that deals with colonialism to an extent in this book. So I’ll not dwell on it overmuch. And there is no map provided with this – we learn the geography and setting of the continent through the text alone, which is interesting and, if slightly confusing at times for those of us used to having nice, neat maps, beautiful. But I got the sense reading it that the way the geography was laid out was not the typical North-West White People Land + Brown People Down South + Brown/Yellow People to the East and so forth (compared to the predominance of Arab Nomad Types in fantasy there are barely any Black people or African Culture Types (except North Africa/Egypt)). I almost got the sense that Homeland was more south than Daria, or something of that sort.
But perhaps the piece of plot I love the most is that, despite the colonial tensions and so on, the main enemy and focus of the plot ends up being the demonic (literally) Northerners. That, plus kelar which is a sort of magic or Gift that acts within or through a person essentially without that person’s choosing and is a lot like an embodiment of Fate and so on… a very intriguing, hard to define concept, are very enjoyable plot pieces.
And the main character. Ah, Harry! Her name is actually Angharad (and then Harimad is the name she is given by the Damarians (natives of Daria)), but she goes by Harry. A heroine named Harry. That alone makes me happy. But the character of Harry is one with which I feel a lot of connection, personally. She reminds me of myself, in many ways – at least at the first of the story, before the Epic Plot sweeps her up! She makes, I think, for a good protagonist and point of view (3rd person, limited) character. She is intelligent, fairly self-aware, and is never entirely comfortable with the fate she gets swept up in, though she does try to make the best of it – and there is, as a sub-plot, her own character development as a result of said fate and so forth. One line I particularly like about her is this: “She had always suffered from a vague restlessness, a longing for adventure that she told herself severely was the result of reading too many novels when she was a small child.”
I think many fans of fantasy can relate to that!
What I Can Critique in This Book: First off, it runs the risk of having a sort of White Saviour Complex happening. The Homelanders, and Harry (who is blonde), are described as your typical European analogue race (white). The Damarians, while never explicitly labelled racially, do come off as Arab analogues and are almost without exception described as dark, as having brown skin (“cinnamon brown” is used at one point, I think) and black hair. There is a bit of confusion, though, in that one of their great cultural heroines is repeatedly emphasized to have had red hair – though this comes off as being very much unique. I suspect I shall find out more in the prequel book. But be that as it may… Harry ends up discovering she is blessed (or cursed) with very strong kelar, of strength close to that of the Damar king, Corlath. Because of this, she ends up becoming the wielder of the Blue Sword – a legendary sword with power of its own once wielded by the red-haired heroine and queen herself, Aerin.
I say “runs the risk of” because it is hard to evaluate, in my opinion. While Harry is in a sort of Chosen One position, and it is due to her wielding the Blue Sword that the Big Enemy is destroyed… there are matters that complicate it. The first is that we discover, fairly late in the book, that Harry’s great-grandmother was from a Damar noble family (hence Harry having kelar, which the Homelanders don’t have and which passes through blood – Homelanders, in fact, don’t even believe in magic – one of the other interesting things about this book). Another is the nature of kelar itself and how it often, at many points, is basically forcing Harry down certain paths and the fact that it is the Blue Sword itself, not Harry, who does the defeating of the Bid Bad.
But overall I think the book treats the complexities of colonialism fairly well, and sensitively. There is no authorial bias to showing the Damarians as “savages” in need of “civilizing” or in favour of the Homeland. But there is also no real explicit anti-colonial message, either, not as it pertains to the Homelanders. The demonic, non-human Northerners who are threatening to sweep south and take all of Damar and Homeland-held Daria are seen as the Big Enemy, though.
But other than all that, there is only one real criticism I have for the book: the romance. There isn’t any, for almost all of it. In fact, as I was reading I had this niggling sensation going “doesn’t she end up marrying someone?” but was confused by the utter lack of what seemed to be any romantic development towards such an end. We get friendships, some very nice ones, but until the marriage proposal right near the end… no real hint. It feels awkward and undeveloped, in my opinion, and it is the heroine marrying the king, as well. Also towards the end, from actually about that point onwards, the style of the writing seems to noticeably change to a more removed Epic a la Lord of the Rings tone. It is elegant and wonderful, but after the immediacy of the first half of the book, a bit… well, odd.
Why You Should Read This Book: A wonderful heroine, well-written and sympathetic secondary women characters, horses as characters not just transport, a mythical sword that cannot be wielded by a man after his 20th birthday and can only truly be wielded by a woman, a society whose big Myth Hero is a woman, beautiful writing, beautiful and unique setting, and a fairly sensitive and aware treatment of the colonial complexities in the story. And it is, I suspect, something of a classic – dates from the early 1980s.
Next Week: The Hero and The Crown by Robin McKinley – the prequel to TBS.