Review: The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley

Goodreads summary:

Harry Crewe is an orphan girl who comes to live in Damar, the desert country shared by the Homelanders and the secretive, magical Hillfolk. Her life is quiet and ordinary-until the night she is kidnapped by Corlath, the Hillfolk King, who takes her deep into the desert. She does not know the Hillfolk language; she does not know why she has been chosen. But Corlath does. Harry is to be trained in the arts of war until she is a match for any of his men. Does she have the courage to accept her true fate?

Review:

The Blue Sword is incredible. The writing is precise and inspiring, as delicate as Sungold’s hooves but as powerful as Harimad-sol’s kelar.

Harry is a shy young girl when we first meet her, a mild inconvenience to her brother and a polite – if a little odd – companion to her guardian’s wife. When Corlath’s kelar, his magical strength and sense, drives him to take her from her home, neither of them know where it will lead. She grows into a confident warrior, but never forgets her kindness and cleverness. And her stubbornness will save them all.

“Mathin had taught her patience, and she had known all of her life how to be stubborn.”

Harry and Corlath are both brilliant. The technique and skill of the writing means we get to see both of their perspectives almost concurrently, and it’s hilariously sweet to watch Corlath trying to be as polite as he can to the young woman he kidnapped for reasons which have yet to reveal themselves to him, let alone the woman in question.

“Long after Harry had cried herself to sleep again, the Hill-king lay awake, facing the grief he had caused and could not comfort.”

But the supporting cast are what really build this novel – especially the King’s Riders’ growing respect and affection for Harry, and Harry’s devoted animal companions – her gorgeous horse, Sungold, and her independent giant cat Narknon – and Jack Dedham’s quiet love of this world which should never really have been his.

I think it’s fair to say that, though this novel is set in a world of colonisation, McKinley never really engages critically with the issue aside from building connections between the invaders and the existing people which requires them to engage in diplomatic relations by the end of the novel. I had a look on Goodreads but didn’t spot a review which dealt with this from an informed perspective. I don’t really feel like I have enough historical knowledge to deal with it either, but I did want to mention that Harry is a member of a nation building an empire, and Corlath is the king of the land they currently want to conquer.

The setting is gorgeously realised. Deserts and mountains are always good fodder for an adventure, and Damar is no exception. The people are hardy and well-adapted, but struggling with pressure from the invading Northerners, and the invading Outlanders. They’re fiercely proud, and justifiably so, of their own culture, architecture, warriors and horses. Harry never displays any overt fear of her gentle kidnappers, and you get the sense that, to some degree, this is the kind of opportunity she’s been waiting for all her life. But I also felt her sense of lostness, her anxiety, and her worry about the future. I empathised very strongly with her character, and now that I’ve finished the book I feel almost bereft of a friend.

I know it’s early days yet, but this might end up being a 2018 fave. It was also very inspiring for my own writing, both in style, and in the way that the magic system works – so I’m very glad I read it!

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Title: The Blue Sword
Author: Robin McKinley
Publisher: Futura Publications
Publication date: 1985
Page count: 272
This book is eligible for Beat the Backlist 2018 and the Colour Coded Challenge.

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