Book Review: “The Blue Sword” by Robin McKinley

The Blue Sword Book Cover

Book Name: The Blue Sword
Author: Robin McKinley
First Published: 1982
Winner: Newbery Honor Book(1983)

Robin McKinley was born in Warren, Ohio. Her father was an officer in the United States Navy and her mother was a school teacher. Like many military families, the McKinleys moved quite often as her father was reassigned to various posts. This gave their daughter exposure to many areas of the United States including California, New York, Maine and even a time living in Japan. McKinley went to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and finished her education at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine where she graduated summa cum laude in 1975.

After college, she remained in Maine for many years working as a research assistant and later at a local bookstore. It was during this time that she completed her first novel, Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast. The work was named an American Library Association Notable Children’s Book and an ALA Best Book for Young Adults.

The author currently lives in Hampshire, England with her husband, author Peter Dickinson. They have no children together, but their family includes two children from a previous relationship of her husband. McKinley is known for her “obsessions” which include learning to play the piano, horseback riding, gardening, cooking and, interestingly enough, bell ringing.

Robin McKinley describes herself as a “scribe” and “Damar’s Historian” because she feels that the stories are told her to by the characters and she is simply writing them down. The Damar stories, of which The Blue Sword is the first to be written, have been occurring to her since before she began her first novel. As an author, she is known to write stories with strong heroines that reflect qualities that she saw in herself as a youth: clumsiness, bookishness and a particular disinterest in the usual social flirting and dating that is commonly found in the stereotypical woman. She likes her women to be out doing things and having adventures, much as their male counterparts would be, a modern sensibility that is more common today than back in the 1980s when the Damar books were originally written. McKinley’s heroines do not simper; they display ideals of faithfulness, duty and honor.

The Blue Sword begins when Angharad Crewe, nicknamed Harry, becomes orphaned when her nobleman father passes away. She is a citizen of a proto-British kingdom known as “Homeland.” Being a young woman in need of a protector, Harry is sent across the ocean to join her elder brother Richard in the nation of Istan, a remote colonial town and military outpost in the Royal Province of Daria. Harry is a shy and awkward girl that is more interested in horses than in flirting with the young soldiers in the outpost. Soon after her arrival, the outpost receives a visit from Corlath, the king of the native hill-folk who still regard the province as their own. Corlath has come to warn the “outlanders” of an invasion from the demon people of the North, but his warnings fall on deaf ears.

Corlath has a magic of his own, called “kelar,” that only runs in the royal bloodline. It shows him a prophecy that the shy young outlander woman he has noticed has an importance to his people and that she must be taken to them. Corlath is embarrassed by the act, but he and his men kidnap Harry and take her away with them when they return to the hills.

Harry’s fear at being abducted gives way to wonder when she discovers that she also has strong kelar of her own. As she lives among Corlath’s people as an honored guest, she learns the language and customs of the Damarians from her mentor Mathin and from the king. Soon she adopts their dress and learns to ride their beautiful horses in Damarian style. She becomes known to the people as Harimad.

During an evening fire, the legendary heroine, Lady Aerin, visits the people as a spirit and favors Harry. Based on this vision, Corlath decides that Harry will enter the Laprun trials, an annual competition for the right to be a King’s Rider. Mathin teaches Harry to fight and ride like a Damarian warrior, preparing her for the trials. In the end, she wins first place, becoming the “Laprun-minta.” The hill people of Damar see this as a good omen because there have been few female riders since the age of Aerin. Harry becomes known as the Damalur-sol, or lady hero. In recognition of this, Corlath gives her a blue sword named Gonturan that had belonged to the legendary Lady Aerin, the dragonslayer.

At first, Harry is bemused by all the honors heaped on her, but gradually she realizes that the impending danger from the demon people of the North is growing closer and that Corlath will do nothing to protect the Homeland people of the outpost. She becomes torn between her old loyalty to her former people and the new found love she has for Damar. She realizes that the Homelanders will have a better chance to defend the pass into their area if they are fore-warned. Despite Corlath’s orders, she races off to warn the Homelanders.

After meeting with the Homelanders, Harry gains a small army of her own composed of both Damarian and Homelanders. Together they make a stand at the pass, expecting only a small part of the Northern army to come through. Instead, they discover that a major part of the army is present and that this pass was determined to be a breach in Darmarian defenses. Harry calls on the power of kelar and falls into a trance. She climbs the mountain and calls for help. Lady Aerin answers her call and Gonturan responds by throwing off sparks of blue light that causes the mountainside to shear off and break away upon the invading army below.

Harry becomes the hero of the day, the savior of Damar. But what of her disobeying the King’s orders and of his disapproval of joining with the Homelanders in battle? Even a hero has to face the music in the end.

I discovered The Blue Sword and its author Robin McKinley the year that it was first published in my local bookstore and purchased it new. The novel intrigued me because back in the early eighties, there were not many books that featured strong willed women who stood on their own and had adventures. I found young Harimad-sol to be identifiable and likable. It was a story that featured big cats, beautiful horses, enchanted swords and true love. What was there not to love? This novel has become a favorite of mine and I’ve read it many times down through the years. Do yourself a favor, read The Blue Sword and its prequel The Hero and the Crown. You will not be disappointed.