“The Blue Sword” by Robin McKinley

The Blue Sword coverThe Blue Sword by Robin McKinley is set in the same world as The Hero and the Crown, which I enjoyed when I read it a couple of years ago. It’s been on my wishlist for a really long time, and I decided to give in and buy myself a copy. Unfortunately, I didn’t end up enjoying it as much.

The Blue Sword features Angharad “Harry” Crewe, a quasi-British (“Homelander”) impoverished noblewoman who finds herself living in a fort town on the edge of the Homelander empire after the death of her parents. Although her life is pretty boring, she realises she has come to love the harsh lands of her new home. She’s interested in the native (Damarian/Hillfolk) culture and language, but everyone around her considers it irrelevant as they are considered barbarians, so she doesn’t learn much about them.

Then, she catches the eye of the king of the Damarians, and he is compelled by his magic to kidnap her. She turns out to be the key to saving both Damar and her own people from the real barbarians – the Northerners, that are descended from demons.

I can’t review this book without spoilers, so my apologies.

WARNING: Extensive spoilers from here on.

I had a pretty hard time with this book for a few different reasons.

The protagonist: Generally I love quiet-but-awesome characters, but I was never really able to connect with Harry. She just seemed mostly passive, but stubborn whenever the plot needed her to be. For example, when she’s kidnapped, she is a bit scared in the beginning, but doesn’t actually react to it that much, even though she has no idea what the Damarians want, and she can’t speak their language. She doesn’t even have a single thought of escape – it’s almost like she’s an observer in her own life. But then she gets utterly convinced that she needs to fight for Damar and is incredibly passionate about that. It just doesn’t seem like the same person – unless she feels utterly useless at home and is just glad that someone wants her, and is willing to do whatever she needs to do to hold on to that. But that’s not a very pleasant or heroic characterisation. In any case, even if Harry is a perfectly likeable person, it didn’t show through in the book for me.

The Mary Sue: In The Inheritance: And Other Stories, Robin Hobb says that in the worst of [fantasy] stories, the magic and the mantle of being a hero is bestowed without effort by or cost to the protagonist. I tend to agree with her, and this is a large part of why I didn’t like the story of The Blue Sword. Harry is unremarkable (she’s a bit withdrawn and cold) when she’s kidnapped, but then reveals herself to have incredibly strong magic, learns the Damarian language to fluency in a couple of weeks, masters the native fighting skills and beats every single warrior in the trials with six weeks of practice, wields a mythical sword that is the most treasured relic of the Damarians, single handedly defeats the enemy by dropping a mountain on them, discovers the long lost healing uses of her magic, marries the king, and commences diplomatic relations between the Homelanders and the Damarians. All in about 200 pages. What does she give up to achieve this? Nothing.

The culture dynamics: At first glance, this book seems to be about subverting the colonial idea that the Damarian “natives” were barbaric and uncivilised, by having a protagonist that has “gone native” by fighting for Damar and choosing to settle there and adopt their culture. But the Damarian civilisation regards another one (the Northerners) as similarly barbaric and uncivilised, and that is never questioned, by Harry or anyone else. Instead, everyone agrees that they are utter evil and must be vanquished – we don’t even meet a single Northerner in the book, except in battle. This really annoyed me, and I’m even totally ignoring the “native civilisation needs a white coloniser girl to come save them” issue.

I understand that this is a young adult book and isn’t as complex as general fantasy, but this is still no excuse.

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