The Blue Sword

by Robin McKinley

Cover image

Series: Damar #1
Publisher: Ace
Copyright: 1982
Printing: March 1987
ISBN: 0-441-06880-4
Format: Mass market
Pages: 248

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The Blue Sword was the first book set in the Damar universe, but it has a prequel, The Hero and the Crown. I read the prequel first, but the order in which they're read doesn't matter. Either the prequel will fill in some interesting details or The Blue Sword will have some resonances with the earlier book, but there's no plot continuity.

Harry is a misfit, a young woman who prefers to go by her childhood nickname and is more comfortable with activities reserved for men in the medieval setting of this book. After the death of her father, she's sent to join her brother, a soldier at a remote colonial outpost of the empire of which she's a citizen. The outpost is in bleak desert and mountain terrain, bordering on hills that are home to the remnants of the civilization that ruled that area before the Homeland came. Most of the men hate it, but Harry finds it unexpectedly beautiful.

The early chapters are a bit awkward and confused. McKinley sets up up Harry's feelings of alienation and difficulty finding a comfortable place in her world, but also confuses the reader a touch with names and minor characters who play no significant further role. The story truly begins when the king of the hill-folk, Corlath, rides out of the hills with a small band of warriors to warn the outpost that magical danger is coming from the north. The military commander of the outpost disregards the talk of magic and is content, from his perspective, to have the troublesome hill people fight each other. His dismissal angers Corlath, who storms off, but not before an unexpected confrontation with Harry that awakens power in both of them. Shortly thereafter, he returns in secret and kidnaps Harry, bringing her away from the Homeland settlement, into the company of the hill-folk, and into the actual story.

This is, as you might have guessed from the description so far, pure stock coming-of-age material. Long-time fantasy readers will be entirely unsurprised to find that Harry has heretofore unknown magical powers, or that she'll take to life among the hill-folk with surprising ease, or that she's critical to the war with the evil magical creatures of the north. The Blue Sword will win no points for originality. But it's a coming-of-age story with a very likeable heroine, one of the better integrations of animals (not magic spirit animals, just animals) into a fantasy that I've read in a while, a romance subplot that I could mostly believe in, and a refreshing lack of infodumping. The reader knows more than Harry for most of the book, but mainly by guessing. The people she finds herself among have a strong emphasis on doing rather than talking, which McKinley uses well to keep the reader in Harry's head and let a feel for their way of life grow slowly with the character.

Also somewhat unusual is that the characters openly acknowledge that Harry is learning far faster than anyone naturally could. This is a typical trope in this sort of coming-of-age story, but usually there's some hand-waving about how the character is heir to some special powers or is a remarkable individual. In The Blue Sword, Harry's powers come from something more like possession, which sweeps Harry away and challenges her to learn how to control and live with it. It's not the only time I've seen that approach, but I like it better than the normal focus on individual exceptionalism.

If you've read much fantasy, little in the plot will come as a surprise, so enjoyment of The Blue Sword will depend heavily on whether you enjoy the characters and storytelling technique as much as I did. I think this one may be hit or miss. It's not the book to reach for if you're saturated on medieval fantasy, but it worked for me. I'm surprised that it's only a Newbery Honor book and The Hero and the Crown won the Newbery Medal; both of them are stock coming-of-age stories, but I thought The Blue Sword was much better written.

Followed, in the prequel sense, by The Hero and the Crown.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-10-27

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21