The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley: How to Write 5 Star Fantasy

Posted: August 13, 2016 in Book Review
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The-Blue-Sword

If I were marketing a new edition of this book (*hint hint, publishers*), I would only half-jokingly market it as Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park meets Alanna The Lioness: The First Adventure.

Premise :

Harry Crewe, an orphan, lives on the charity of an upper-class Homelander family in the desert country of Damar. But when the king of a native, magical Hillfolk population senses with his “kelar” magic that Harry will be important to his people, he spirits her away to his desert tribe.

Harry soon exceeds the Hillfolk king’s expectations by developing a military skill that marks her a symbol of hope for the downtrodden Hillfolk. To them, she becomes known as “Harimad-sol,” a legend in the making, and among them she finds purpose she never found among the Homelanders. When the King declares her a king’s rider and gifts her with the legendary blue sword of Lady Aerin, Harry carries it to war for her adopted country.

High Fantasy, first published 1982, winner of Newbery Honor (1983), Rebecca Caudill Young Reader’s Book Award Nominee (1988) & Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Nominee (1984).

My library has copies of The Blue Sword in both the children’s section and the adult sf/f section; but if this book were published today, it would probably be marketed as YA, even though it doesn’t feel like modern YA (kind of like Sabriel by Garth Nix doesn’t feel quite like YA). It would also probably have more romance and less of a European feel.

As is, it appeals as much to adult-me as I think it would have to teenaged-me.

The Plot :

The first few chapters start slowly, but the writing is so lovely, I didn’t mind a bit. The plot fits nicely within the Hero’s Journey/Quest plot, except that it’s about a girl, instead of a guy. I love the “training” portions of the novel, since those often get skipped, in modern YA Fantasies.

The Worldbuilding :

The worldbuilding is a delightful mix of Victorian English, almost-American-western and middle eastern societies, as impossible as that sounds. The Homelanders have civil servants, rickety trains and fabulously fresh orange juice, and they spend their time hosting fancy dinners with the militia to find eligible mates for their daughters. Meanwhile the conquered Hillfolk, a clan-like desert people, live in the real world where wars and magic and concerns over a dwindling population take precedence.

It’s quite a fun world.

The subtle “kelar” magic reminds me of The Lord of the Rings. Nobody knows how the magic works, exactly; it just does. It appears to be more of an uncontrollable, fates-driven thing than an ability.

The Characters :

There’s so much to love about Harry Crewe. She’s my very favorite kind of protagonist—one who is complex and compelling, but also very good. She’s a heroine not just because she’s skilled, capable and loyal, but because she has a mind of her own and accepts responsibility for her own choices without complaint. She doesn’t expect the world to be fair; she just does her best to make it better.

She reminds me so, so much of Keladry in Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small series.

Modern heroes and heroines are often flawed, but Harry proves that “good” doesn’t have to mean “simple,” “boring” or “formulaic,” just as “flawed” doesn’t always mean “complex.”

The Style :

The Blue Sword deemphasizes voice in favor of worldbuilding, a technique I love. McKinley’s unaffected, genteel and lightly humorous third person objective narration is, I think, more difficult than the more far more common and subjective “third person limited” and “first person” narratives that populate YA today. A lot of older Fantasies seem more adept at this technique; perhaps the style was more popular, then.

Recommendation :

The Blue Sword won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but I would HIGHLY, HIGHLY recommend this book for fans of Tamora Pierce, Rosemary Sutcliff and Cinda Williams Chima. (Also, possibly fans of Sherwood Smith. I haven’t tried her, yet, but she sounds promising.) Anyone who just wants a good story.

I’m already rereading it and enjoying the lush worldbuilding all over again. It’s no wonder Robin McKinley’s books have survived and thrived decades after they were written.

Do you know any great books like this one? If you have any recommendations for me, please tell me in the comments!

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