Flashback Friday: What if the grain doesn’t want to become a pearl? Is it ever asked to climb out quietly and take up its old position as a bit of ocean floor? . . .

You’re a girl who’s always lived with a strange yearning for something more that you cannot place.  That yearning only grows worse when you move to a post that resides at the edge of mysterious desert kingdom.  But you figure it has to do with reading too many books when you were younger.  You certainly don’t expect a mad desert prince to abduct you from your home and carry you out into the desert.  You don’t expect to find you have a great and dangerous destiny awaiting you, and that the fate of this kingdom may lie in your hands . . .

Do you remember:

The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley (Ace, c1982)

This Newbery Honor fantasy is still one of my favorite sword and sorcery tales. Although I didn’t discover McKinely prior to Tamora Pierce, these were still some of the first fantasy stories with female protagonists that hit the shelves in the 1980s.   Harry Crewe pretty much epitomizes the voice of the awkward tween/teen girl–the one who doesn’t fit in, whose interests and mannerisms make her stand out and leave her slightly lonely.  Who hasn’t quite grown into her physical mastery or become someone completely real yet.  She’s in transition, on the cusp–and almost ready to accept the bland but comfortable life her brother has carved out for her.  She’ll befriend girls who are silly and wind up marrying a shy but good hearted soldier who likes her.  Except that fate is not about to let that happen.

Corlath, the young king of the Hillfolk, knows that war is coming to his people.  A dangerous war with demon-mage forces from the North.  He seeks help and allies among the Homelanders–what he gets instead is Harry Crewe.  And Harry’s naturally not very happy about being stolen away.  On the verge of accepting her life as it was, she’s been thrown willy-nilly into a new one.  One of strange customs, language and magic.  And somehow she’s connected with it all.  But growing into the warrior and hero that the kingdom will need her to be will take some doing and in the end it is her own path she must follow, to find a bridge between the Homelanders and the Hillfolk.

There are all the elements of classical sword and sorcery fantasy here. Prophecy, magic, battles, princes, ancient legends and powerful soothsayers.  There are knights of a sort, and the special enchanted sword, Gonturan, that can only be wielded by women in battle.  There is drama and romance and even dashes of humor that keep this from becoming ponderous.  It’s a marvelous example of this kind of story and it richly deserves the Newbery Honor it received in my opinion.

Oh, and I can’t forget the horses.  Robin McKinley must love horses.  If you’ve read even a handful of her books, her horse characters spring to life, beautiful, bold and utterly wonderful.   That’s certainly true in this book, where the Hillfolk raise a special breed of powerful and intelligent warhorses.  Tsornin, Harry’s own warhorse, is on the cover above–and it feels like a pretty accurate rendering of the kind of creature the author is describing.

Two years after writing this story, McKinley wrote a second book on the history of Damar, setting up a loosely connected duology.  This later story, The Hero and the Crown(1984) is actually a prequel.  It chronicles the events of Aerin and how she became a dragon slayer and saved her kingdom.  Gonturan and the soothsayer Luthe both appear here–and Luthe has a much larger role to play in this book.  Though it is written as a prequel, this companion volume stands on its own, much as The Blue Sword does.  The Hero and the Crown winds up being a less traditional sword and sorcery fantasy in many ways, as well as being suitable for a slightly older audience than the original story.  Both of these books were among some of the first I bought for myself with my allowance money. (I still have my original copies, though they’ve been taped and mended extensively over the years.)

I admit that McKinley’s heroines don’t quite have the same quality of independence and determination in carving their own way that so many of Tamora Pierce’s characters do.  Harry’s course is more or less determined for her, even if it’s the one she’s been yearning for her whole life.  And while it’s glorious that Harry is rescued by a quest and a destiny rather than by marrying a prince, it still is a sort of rescue.  It’s a rescue I enjoy reading and don’t mind too much that most of Harry’s path is laid out for her–she still must make some hard decisions in the end and work her own way to the answers she needs.

Robin McKinley continues to write fantasy stories for mostly teens and adults–only a few of her books have made it onto the middle grade shelves (but those are among my favorites).  The author has a more classical style voice than a lot of today’s contemporary fantasy writers,  but she inserts enough humor and human observation into her stories to allow them to be accessible and enjoyable for a range of readers.

Any fans of The Blue Sword?  Comments welcome!

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About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on May 4, 2014, in Flashback Fridays, General Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I’m so glad that I saw this review! You’ve managed to capture a lot of my own feelings about McKinley’s heroines that I wasn’t quite able to articulate when I first read the books as a teenager.

    I won’t lie- “The Blue Sword” opened my eyes to the possibility of YA books starring female protagonists with agency and ultimately led me to writers like Tamora Pierce. But I always chafed a bit at how neat the path they followed was and how little their own choices played into the fate that awaited them.

    So thank-you- that was a lovely read that helped clarify a missing puzzle piece in my head. 🙂

  2. I love Robin McKinley so much – I’ve read and reread her books, and read them aloud both to my 9 years younger brother when he was younger, and to my love when we were first married. I’ve been waiting for my son to be old enough, and am debating if 9 is old enough for this one or if I should wait another year or two.

    BTW, Robin McKinley does love horses. And roses and large dogs. If you read her blog, she talks about them frequently.

    • This is often a story I refer to my parents who have younger children who read at an advanced level but who aren’t ready for the maturity of a lot of older texts.

      • thank you! That’s a good thought… he is a very advanced listener, anyway. I might have started it with him yesterday, but my personal copy is loaned out.

  3. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

    Fan here! I can’t stand most of McKinley’s more recent books, but these two and Beauty are still some of my favorites ever.

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