by Robin McKinley
“It was hard to believe in orange groves as she looked out the window, across the flat deserty plain” (McKinley, 1)
This one is actually a re-read, but I read it years ago so it felt pretty fresh, as if it was new. There was one story development I thought I remembered (and I ended up being right), but everything else was fair game for newness.
It had an engaging opening. There’s something about the conversational tone that makes it very easy to get into.
The description were potent and very vivid, if occasionally a bit tedious. Because of this, some scenes dragged. In particular, the tone of the story stayed the same throughout.
This was okay at the beginning since it took the time to built the mood, the characters, and the environment. I liked the highly internalized point of view, coming very strongly from Harry (Angharad) Crewe’s experiences. And when the desert or hills were described there was a strong weight to the words; they felt like solid prints being left down in the text. The trouble was that it kept the same pace even at the climax, which made it feel slow, clunky, and difficult to get through.
Not that the climatic battle wasn’t impressive (even if it’s told from the point of view of those watching Harry – or the Blue Sword – summon an avalanche to crush the Northerns and their army), but the pace of the story felt the same as the beginning. And I feel that as a story reaches its climax, it should have some quickening pace.
In The Tale of Hill Top Farm, while the tone and description didn’t change, I did feel, once the money was found, that there was a sense of momentum to the story, until it slowed down again and ended. The Blue Sword, not so much.
Furthermore, there’s no getting around the taint of Orientalism. Harry is a Homelander girl, semi-English-coded invaders in a tense stalemate against the Bedouin-coded Hillfolk. When their king Corlath’s kelar, the magical inheritance in his blood, refuses to let him return home without taking Harry with him, it superficially evokes the trope that
“turn up a lot in Romance Novels, where [the men] are dark, brooding, passionate and rule everything they survey in their desert kingdom with the same tenacity they show towards the heroine. Sheikh romance actually gave us the term “bodice ripper” due to the common kidnap-rape-love plots where the Arab can get away with being beyond normal constraints in how he treats the heroine due to his exoticness.”
But in the text, Corlath is very self-consciousness about it and is very firm that Harry be treated with dignity. So his attitude contradicts and dismantles the expected trope.
The aspect I found initially the most troubling is how Harry is specially designed or destined to save Damar, home of the Hillfolk or Damarians, from inhuman northern invaders and provide a renewed sense of hope. As she’s told,
“‘It is a good thing for us to have a damalur-sol. It is a good thing for us to have something to look to, for hope'” (141).
By becoming damalur-sol and Harimad-sol, a King’s Rider and the first women to wield the Blue Sword in centuries, she becomes the Damarians’ symbol of hope. The only explanation as to why she has the potential to save them is because her own kelar is extremely potent. As I read along, this very integral plot point left a buzz of concern on the back of my mind.
Also, I think it’s important to point out that Harry is described as different from others, except for a few Homelanders, because she actually loves the desert. There’s something about it that appeals to her, which struck me as having a tinge of Orientalism and appropriation, too, because she is more “made” for the desert.
Eventually it turns out that she has Damarian (or Hillfolk) blood from her grandmother. I’m not sure if that resolves my dilemma, since it’s (unknowingly) part of her heritage (but not really her culture). I suppose if there’s anything to critique after this reveal, it’s that her blood seems to augment her natural place in the Damarian culture without having to have been born into it.
Admittedly, the story makes a strong emphasis that Harry never behaved quite right in the Homelander culture. So it may set her up as belonging to Damarian culture, while still retaining ties to her Homelander identity. (At the end, through her connections on both sides, she is able to begin fostering better relations between Damarian and Homelander.)
So again, it’s hard to say that Harry was just a white woman who came to save people of color. (Also, the fact that Corlath himself leads the main army that fights off a smaller portion of the northern army is probably worth noting.)
What about positives?
I did love Harry and Mathin’s relationship. He trained her to fight with a sword. By the end, when she saves his life with the help of Corlath, it’s clear that the two are incredibly close. It’s nice. On that note, I felt too much time was spent on Harry’s time with others and her relationship to them instead of Corlath.
And this brings me to what I said at the beginning. I couldn’t remember, but I suspected she and Corlath married at the end. I was right. And it really felt like it had no set up. Though to be fair, there was a hint of it when Corlath lets her stay at the cottage palace his father made for his mother.
The trouble was that most of Harry’s point of view in relation to him hinges on how she thinks he thinks she’s a burden, or he’s restraining himself or keeping his thoughts to himself. And we don’t hear anything from Corlath’s point of view in regards to how he views Harry. There’s a sense that they never really talk to each other, like there’s a barrier that Corlath is keeping up because (as he says at the end) he was afraid she wouldn’t want to stay with him because he had taken her from her home.
So, the reason neither said anything was because (1) Harry didn’t realize Corlath had feelings and only realizes she does near the end, and (2) Corlath was afraid of admitting his feelings for the aforementioned reason. They tell each other how they suddenly feel and become engaged.
I could also relate to Harry’s displacement and uncertainty about who she was and how others were molding her a certain way. Such as after she’s been training with Mathin for a week or so and she begins clutching her sword in her sleep without thinking. It’s not something she feels she would have done naturally and yet she does.
Finally, I’d actually say that The Hero and the Crown, the prequel to The Blue Sword, does a better job of explaining the kelar and how it works.
Overall, it was okay. I’m not sure I’d read it again anytime soon, but it is a very meticulously detailed book. It immerses you in the scents, styles, and bodily aches of the world and characters, which generate, for me, an alertness for minuscule details in my writing. Which can never be a bad thing.
McKinley, Robin. The Blue Sword. New York, NY: Ace Books, 1987. Print.
“Arab Oil Sheikh” TV Tropes. 24 July 2015. Web.