book reviews by Althea

The Blue Sword – Robin McKinley *****

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The Blue Sword
The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Re-read for book club.

I got this book when I was eleven, I believe, and that was the perfect age. I have read this book so many times that picking it up again, after many years, was like hearing an old favorite song come onto the radio… each phrase resonating clearly in memory, bringing with it emotional associations.

So – I can’t claim to be wholly objective about the book. I can say that if I has read it for the first time now, it would not have been as meaningful to me. Interestingly, I re-read the sequel to this book, ‘The Hero and the Crown’ not so long ago. (…). When the sequel came out, I was mildly disappointed by it, but as an adult, I actually think that it holds up better over time.

Part of this may be that while ‘The Blue Sword’ is in many ways purely a romantic fantasy, it is also inspired by historical fact. When I first read the book I did know about British Colonialism (thanks, ‘The Secret Garden’!) but I knew nothing about the Anglo-Afghan conflict, which the events here are based on. It’s jarring to reconcile the essentially uplifting story here with the bloody, nasty, reality. Don’t get me wrong, the book in no way endorses colonialism. The problems and ethical issues are all acknowledged here – but they’re presented subtly, sometimes between the lines. Our main POV character is Harry, a young woman who’s been brought up in a certain type of society, and although she is an admirable person, her perspective on things is realistically limited by her experiences and what she perceives as ‘normal.’ I actually think that the presentation of the political issues is just about perfectly handled for an audience of preteens and young teens.

The main focus of the story is not political, but is on Harry as a character. In many ways, Harry is a Mary Sue – a term that has been thrown around a lot over the past few years as a term of denigration. I am pretty much opposed to that concept. No, books with ‘Mary Sue’ characters might not be delving into the sordid depths of the human character or aiming for a Booker Prize, but I think that they are a valid and important type of literature. Sometimes, we need wish fulfillment. Having a wonderful character to project yourself into can be incredibly valuable.

Harry has always felt like an outsider in her stuffy faux-British society, which sees her as wild and headstrong. Orphaned, the responsibility for her lies on her brother, a soldier. He’s relieved to have an aristocratic couple posted overseas in the diplomatic service agree to take her in. Harry is keenly aware of her position as a charity case – but quickly finds herself falling in love with the new country she’s been brought to. It resonates with her on a deep level, and finally she feels that she might be somewhere that she belongs.

However, her life is upended once again when the king of the hilltribes, Corlath, comes to the house where she is living on a diplomatic mission. The mission might be a failure, but Corlath’s ‘kelar,’ his hereditary magic, ‘recognizes’ Harry at first sight – and insists that he take her as a hostage.

Events unravel from there, and we see Harry progress from being a child, subject to the wills of others, to a person strong enough to do what she believes needs to be done, even directly in defiance of others’ wills. And of course, to become a legendary hero and to save the day.

The writing is wonderful – I love McKinley’s mix of down-to-earth, practical details and elevated, fantastic passages. Another notable aspect is the depictions of animals – both cats and horses feature prominently in the book, and are shown with a genuine love and affection. The book also has a well-balanced mix of action and romance. It’s a wholly chaste romance, but emotionally intense, and again, it’s just perfect for a pre-teen. If you know someone in that age group, don’t let them grow up without reading this!

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