It seems that once I read a novel by Robin McKinley, it remains forever imprinted in my mind, floating around in my memories, and tantalizing me at random moments with traces of the story. That is what drove me to re-read Spindle’s End and to discover The Blue Sword. I had forgotten the name of a tale about a girl with vivid red hair who defeated a dragon and mistook The Blue Sword to be the book I sought because of its cool title and obviously the girl would need a sword to defeat the dragon so why not a blue one. I passed over The Hero and the Crown, judging the book by its title and wrongly thinking that the great story I read years ago could not have had such a simple title.
Oh, to be deceived by simplicity.
If I had taken the time to read the blurb on the back cover or even to skim the first few pages, I would have found the book I was searching for. Nevertheless, finding The Blue Sword was a wonderful misdirection that took me on an absorbing read. The Hero and the Crown was just as great but I love The Blue Sword’s story more (though, The Hero and the Crown was a more enjoyable read. I just love the imagery in the story). This is interesting because when I first read The Hero and the Crown back in high school, I could not find another story that I loved more (except for Rowling’s Harry Potter and Tamora Pierce’s Alanna series). Now that I’ve read both books almost back-to-back, I can tell why the younger me loves The Hero and the Crown and the older me enjoys The Blue Sword.
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.
I faintly remember the first time I read Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley. I was enraptured by her prose. I was first drawn to her when I picked up The Hero and the Crown at my local library (that was years ago at the beginning of high school). Though I faintly remember reading it as well, I do remember that I loved the story and thought highly of its protagonist, Aerin. As the years wore on, I branched out to other authors and read other stories and forgot about McKinley but every now and then, the memory of how I felt when I first read her books would visit and nudge me to revisit them.
I felt that way earlier this year and finally gave in to that nudge. I visited Barnes and Noble and bought Spindle’s End. I kept recalling the moment when the Queen saw Rosie and knew she is her child despite the enchantments that surrounded Rosie to disguise her. I could almost feel the love that pulled the Queen’s eyes to Rosie. I wanted to experience that again.
This time when I read Spindle’s End, I was able to appreciate how detailed the story is. At first, this was a nuance. The abundance of details makes the tale flow at a leisurely pace, quite like the characters and setting of the story. Since novels these days are usually fast-paced—or they start off with a bang to grab the reader’s attention then slow to crawl—I was impatient when I began reading. Surprisingly, I was not this impatient with stories when I was a kid.