The Blue Sword
Author: Robin McKinley
Published: February 1983
Publisher: William Morrow
Back in the ‘80s I attended a science fiction convention called Life, the Universe and Everything, which is held annually at Brigham Young University. My primary target there was Orson Scott Card. However, the chief guest of honor was Robin McKinley, whom I had never heard of. When she gave her address, there were no other seminars, so I went along to see what she had to say.
In addition to the rest of us conventioneers, the auditorium quickly filled up with adolescent girls and their mothers. At this late date I have absolutely no memory of anything she said, but by the end of her speech, I was at least willing to give one of her books a try. In the retail court somebody had a used copy of her book, The Blue Sword, so I shrugged and bought it. I had waited in the long, long line to get Scott Card to sign something for me, but there wasn’t much of anybody in McKinley’s line, so I even ambled over and got her to sign my second-hand book. I almost put it down in the first chapter without finishing it. And that would have been an unfortunate thing, for her books have enriched my life enormously.
The Blue Sword starts out like a Victorian adventure novel. The main character Harry Crewe has recently arrived in what seems to be a thinly veiled British India. There are trains, orange groves, natives in exotic clothing and an occupying military force. She doesn’t call the places India and England, she calls them Daria and the Homeland but the veil seems pretty translucent. Harry’s parents have died and she is on her way to stay with her brother who is a young officer in the army of occupation.
The beginning chapter takes place at a small town at the very edge of the lands controlled by the Homelanders. Beyond this point are hills which are still under the control of a native king, but the Homelanders are eager to extend their rule. However, it seems that they have been trying for at least 20 years and so far they haven’t made much progress.
The community of Homelanders is close-knit, and Harry gets to know the Colonel who is in charge of the fort, and she hears the rumors from him and others that these wild hill folk have magical powers. When Homelanders go into battle against hill folk, their rifles blow up in their faces or won’t go off at all. All their cavalry horses fall down at once - that sort of thing. Superstitious nonsense, of course. But then the king of the hill folk, Corlath, comes to negotiate with the Homelander governor and by chance he sees Harry. A few days later, Harry disappears in the middle of the night. The dogs didn’t bark; the doors remained locked. None of her things are missing, and there is no sign of struggle. She is simply gone.
I won’t spoil the story by telling you any more details, but let me just say that there is magic and great battles and bravery in the face of overwhelming odds, and Harry isn’t a shrinking Victorian heroine standing by wringing her hands while the menfolk do the heavy lifting. Robin McKinley is known for her strong female characters and Harry Crewe is a doozy. (Corlath isn’t bad either.)
This is a great story. I have been rereading it once every year or two for nearly 20 years now, and I’m not tired of it yet. My daughter who seldom reads (I’m so ashamed. Where did I go wrong?) also rereads The Blue Sword every year.
The Blue Sword has received the following honors:
A 1983 Newbery Honor Book
An ALA Notable Book
An ALA Best Book for Young Adults
But don’t make the mistake of thinking that it is only a children’s book. I was already an adult when I first read this book, and I like to think I’m still an adult but this is one of my favorite books in the whole world. My daughters who read The Blue Sword for the first time as adolescents are still rereading it as adults.
I believe that The Blue Sword is read more by women than men because the protagonist is a woman. After all, men have a whole galaxy of fantasy books to read in which the main characters are men. But if you are of the male species, I would encourage you to give The Blue Sword a chance. You know, women have been having to nourish their imaginations on stories with male protagonists for centuries because there was so little out there about women, and perhaps it has helped us to have some insight into the male psyche. My son read The Blue Sword and liked it. You won’t have to put up with any mushy girly stuff (There aren’t any sex scenes either, but you can’t have everything.) and there is some great sword stuff.
On her website, McKinley has said of The Blue Sword :
I find Sword pretty embarrassing because my eleven-year-old self’s fantasy of the perfect life is so nakedly exposed in it. (Corlath, by the way, looks a lot like Sean Connery from about twenty years ago, only with hair. I do not, of course, know if Connery’s eyes turn yellow when he’s angry. It wouldn’t surprise me.)
I, however, would like to reassure Robin that she has no need to be embarrassed, because I’m considerably older than 11, and I still like her fantasy of the perfect life (and a young Sean Connery fits very nicely into my fantasies, too).
Let me share with you what some reviewers have said about The Blue Sword :
A new language, a new landscape,
and a new people - all unforgettable!
Any book that, at one point or another, reminded me of
The Sheikh, Gunga Din, Islandia, and The Lord of the Rings,
can’t be anything but a true original.
-Asimov’s Science Fiction
McKinley's spare and eloquent prose
is sheer delight... a compelling portrait
of the vibrant, wryly humorous Harry."
-School Library Journal,