I bought this book at Barnes & Noble thinking I read it back in high school. The book I recalled reading had a girl with flaming red hair, wielding a sword, and fighting a dragon that burnt off all her hair, which was never again as lustrous as it once was. After reading The Blue Sword, I realized that the book I was thinking of was The Hero and the Crown. As I mentioned in my reflection on Spindle’s End, The Hero and the Crown was the first book I read by Robin McKinley. Like Ursula Le Guin and J.K. Rowling, McKinley’s characters tend to stay with me for years. The details of the story may cloud over with memories but the characters never fade away.
At first, I did not expect any aspect of The Blue Sword to stand out to me. When I discovered it was not the book I thought it to be, I got upset and felt gypped and threw the book back in my bookcase. I didn’t bother to give it a chance. And how rude of me to do so, especially to Robin McKinley! A few months later, I saw The Blue Sword again while I was organizing my bookcase and decided to read it
A quick summary: (Here be spoilers!)
The Blue Sword is about a girl named Harry Crewe who moves to Ihistan, a military outpost in Daria, a land claimed by Homelanders, to live closer to her brother after their father died. She finds herself bored by the area but fascinated by its native inhabitants, the Damarians, or the Hillfolk, as they are referred to by the Homelanders. (The Hillfolk call the Homelanders Outlanders.) The Homelanders invaded and colonized Damar, a fabled land that is said to contain magic, to access the mines in its hills. Leaving the desert to the invading Homelanders, the Damarians retreated to the mountains that surround the desert. While some Damarians mingle with the Homelanders, others refuse to associate with them. Both, though, refuse to share much of their culture with the Homelanders, whom they see as obnoxious. The Homelanders instead speculate about what they do not know of the Damarians, who they think to be peculiar and secretive.
“The Damarians that do work for you, or with you, are very anxious to prove how Homelander they really are, and loyal to all things Homelander, so they won’t talk; and the others won’t for the opposite reasons.” —Colonel Dedham
Since a demonic tribe to the north threatens to invade the Hillfolk’s land, their king Corlath, whom most Homelanders believe to be mad, puts aside his pride to ask the Homelanders for help since the Damarians are not as numerous to stave off the attack alone. His request is denied but he caught sight of Harry while leaving and his kelar, a powerful force within him that drives him to do random things and is also the source of his magic, forces him to kidnap her. Corlath does not know why it is imperative that he abduct Harry but he is unable to ignore the kelar’s urge.
Although abducted, Harry remains calm and composed. She is afraid at first but soon grows to be comfortable with her captors, who become friends. She learns Hillfolk history and culture, and how to fight with a sword and ride their beautiful horses. She also learns that she has the kelar within her. Harry becomes one of the King’s Riders, close and trusted companions of Corlath’s, and is given the honor of wielding Gonturan, the fabled blue sword that can only be held by a woman, the first to do so was Lady Aerin from The Hero and the Crown. Soon it is time for her to battle the demonic force from the north. Worrying about the defenseless Homelanders at the desert outpost, Harry defies Corlath’s orders and goes back to Ihistan to warn her people. Her kelar helps her to do this. Some of the Homelanders leave with Harry to battle the northern invaders. With her army of Homelanders and Damarians, Harry faces the demon of the north and defeats him. She returns to Corlath, fearful of what will happen to her and those who defied his orders. Her worries are for naught as Corlath greets her with love upon her return.
Robin McKinley does a great job of building a firm foundation for the world she creates. The story takes its time easing the reader in so that she gets acclimated with the protagonist, the setting, and the characters in the setting, before jumping into action. By the time the action kicks off, the reader is well acquainted with the characters and can easily understand the dynamics of their society.
McKinley is a detailed writer. I’ve realized that she tends to first introduce the reader to those forces that shape her protagonists. In Spindle’s End she opens with magic, which is infused in the land and the people and is essential to the story and thus the protagonist. McKinley does the same in The Blue Sword. She begins with the kelar, that powerful, impulsive and troublesome force that runs throughout the story, treating the characters like pawns on a chess board. We see it at play on the first page: Harry is up early; she doesn’t know why; it’s not because she is hungry; she is forced to rise from her bed, sit at her window, and stare at the mountains—the mountains of the Hillfolk.
The story is told by a third-person limited narrator and switches between Harry and Corlath’s perspectives. Along with narrating the story, I think the narrator serves as a device for explaining the kelar’s intentions. Why do I think this? The majority of the story is told from Harry’s point of view but she spends most of it lost. She doesn’t really cause anything to happen until she begins to identify who she is. In the meantime, the kelar helpfully pulls her along: attracts her to the hills; causes Corlath to abduct her; makes Lady Aerin appear in the fire thus causing Corlath to consider making her a fighter; small stuff like that.
Also, we do not read from Corlath’s point of view until the kelar drives him to abduct Harry. If we weren’t provided with Corlath’s POV, we would agree with the Homelanders that Corlath is a mad king but the narrator-cleaner-upper instead explains that it was not Corlath’s decision. He’s simply a tool. The characters just have to accept the path that the kelar has set for them. It seems that they have no choice in the matter and are simply pawns of the kelar.
Of course, one could also argue that the switch in perspectives provides the readers with the chance to see things from the Hillfolk’s POV—to give them a voice. Although the Homelanders occupy a part of their land and would like to smother them and take the rest, the Hillfolk try to remain free, even if it means possible defeat by the northerners. They continue to resist and fight, hence Corlath’s denied request. Harry too does not like to be caged, which is one of the reasons why she was curious of the surrounding hills. She can relate to the Hillfolk and she easily assimilates to their customs once she begins living among them. However, she suffers from bouts of cultural displacement and dislocation.
“That sickness of dislocation came to her most often when she was most at ease in the strange adventure she was living.”
Harry’s feeling of displacement and dislocation is another element that hooked me to this story because I strongly related it. At first, she felt lost and unable to identify who she is—Homelander or Hillfolk—because she could easily relate to both groups. Where did she fit in? Later, she began to see herself as a bridge between them, which was strengthened once she learned she is half-Damarian. As a Jamaican immigrant in the U.S., I could relate to Harry here. Sometimes I too feel displaced, as if I do not truly belong to either culture. I was born in Jamaica and lived there for half of my life. I am now living the other half in the U.S. I love my Jamaican culture and I’ve grown to respect the American one. Still, sometimes I feel like an outsider to both despite my ties to them. I was not surprised when Harry decided to disobey Corlath’s orders and warn the Homelanders. She could not turn her back on her family, her people.
“…the sense of coming home to a place that was no longer home oppressed her further.”
Obviously, a wealth of themes run through this book, the most apparent being identity. Harry searches for her true identity throughout the story and the kelar pulls her toward it, aided by Corlath. She goes through various transitions, which can be tracked by the changes to her name: from Angharad to Harry to Harimad-sol. For some reason, I like to think that she was somewhat “born again” after she was abducted and made to join the Hillfolk’s camp. That mystical dinner with Corlath and his riders baptized her as a Damarian. She begins in a state of tabula rasa and is taught the ways and language of the Hillfolk until she becomes one. So the kelar sort of gave her a new life, or maybe an old one.
Anyways, other aspects of the story that I love are McKinley’s skillful use of language and the fact that the romance between the two main characters does not overshadow the story. Actually, the developing romance between Corlath and Harry is so minimal that I didn’t see it coming. I expected it and then thought it wouldn’t happen and was surprised when it did. I love that. It goes without saying that I also love this story because it features a strong female protagonist who saves the day. I like that it is a woman who has to rescue the kingdom, just like it was a woman who wakes the princess from her deep sleep and rescues the kingdom in McKinley’s Spindle’s End. However, much can be debated on the fact that it is a white-colored person of the colonizer’s race that saves the dark-colored people who were driven from their land.
“Why is it so arranged that I must hope for the comprehension of an Outlander? Why must it be an Outlander who carries so precious a Gift? A Gift she may choose to repudiate or—or use against us, who need the strength so sorely?” —Corlath’s thoughts
Hopefully my enthusiasm for The Blue Sword does not deter you from reading it. I apologize for my reflection being so long but I wanted to include everything that I found exciting. By the time I finished reading, I was buzzing and when I sat down to do this reflection, I had trouble deciding on where to start. I hope I did the novel well. It is worth the read and I recommend it to everyone, no matter who you are or what your age is. Go read it!
Quotes from the book:
“She felt a fool, let loose, however involuntarily, in a highly organized community which now wished to organize her too: like the grain of sand that gets into an oyster’s shell. What if the grain doesn’t want to become a pearl? Is it ever asked to climb out quietly and take up its old position as a bit of ocean floor?”
“…for even a small herd is better than solitude.”
“Teachers are always vain of the students who go on to do great things.”
“You are attempting to be logical, I suspect, and logic has little to do with government, and nothing at all to do with military administration.”
“The wind sniggered around the rocks, but overhead it flung itself, laughing shrilly, through the mountains, into the quiet planes of Damar, bearing with it the inhuman whispers and moans of the Northern army.” I love this line!
- Colonial Fantasy: Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword (tor.com)
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