Sunday 14 December 2014

#CBR6 Book 133: "The Blue Sword" by Robin McKinley

Page count: 256 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Having finally read The Hero and the Crown, it felt like it was time for a re-read of the Damar book I had actually read. The Blue Sword is set many centuries after Aerin the Dragon Slayer saved her kingdom from magical threat. Damarians now seem to be chiefly desert dwelling nomads and expert horsemen. They are now threatened both by magic wielding enemies to the north and ignorant colonists from the Homeland (read: Imperialist Britain). Corlath, the Damarian king tries to propose an alliance with the foreigners, but is ignored. He is surprised when his kelar, the magical gift (a bit like clairvoyance, but can also manifest itself in healing powers or destructive ability) all Damarian royals possess tells him that he needs to bring one of the Homeland females with him back to his people.

Burdened with the cumbersome name of Angharad Crewe, it's no surprise our heroine would rather go by Harry. Having come out to join her brother, a soldier stationed near the Damarian border after their father dies, Harry is not much like other the young ladies of gentle birth. She's tall and striking, rather impatient and more interested in riding and adventure than needlepoint and dancing. She finds the wild landscape of the desert beautiful and is just beginning to settle when she wakes up, discovering that desert warriors have abducted her and apparently intend to keep her as some sort of highly honoured hostage. Corlath treats her with every courtesy, she sleeps in his tent, eats her meals seated at his left hand and is allowed to take part in his counsels (not that she understands all that much of the foreign language in the beginning). When she drinks from the Damarians' special water, it starts to become clear why Corlath was compelled by his magic to take her from her own people - despite being a foreigner, she too has kelar and powerful enough that she can make others share in her visions of the future.

In one of her first visions, the legendary Lady Aerin appears to Harry and with threats looming at every turn, Corlath decides that a damalur-sol, a Lady Hero might be exactly what his people need to give them hope and aid them in their coming war. Harry learns to ride like the Damarians, controlling a spirited horse without bridle or stirrups. She becomes proficient with a sword and learns to speak the language. She befriends one of the big desert cats and gets to take part in the trials to find new King's Riders. During her stay with the Damarians, Harry becomes well liked and everyone seems impressed and genuinely pleased when she emerges the victor of the Rider trials (only unable to defeat a disguised Corlath himself). The longer she spends time with Corlath and his nomads, the more comfortable she becomes there. As attack is imminent, it becomes obvious to Harry that Corlath is ignoring a serious security breach and she may have to risk everything she's achieved and defy his will to ensure the safety of all the people she's grown to love.

If Aerin was a bit of an odd duck and outsider among her own people, Harry is much more so. Being quite the independent tomboy, she doesn't really fit in with her own peers and when she is abducted by Corlath, she is a literal Outlander, a stranger in a strange land. Unlike many of her fellow Homelanders, Harry is curious and open minded and with the exception of being magically drugged and spirited away from her bed in the middle of the night, she is extremely well treated by her abductor. Corlath only knows that he has to follow the calling of his kelar and when he discovers that Harry too is magically gifted, and rather strongly so as well, it becomes more clear to him why he was compelled to kidnap her. His country and people need her and being a clever leader and a good reader of people, he uses the opportunity Harry's visions of Aerin presents and has her groomed into a heroine and powerful symbol. Giving her Lady Aerin's legendary sword and making sure she is trained by the best, he helps to turn Harry into a motivating figure for his people.

Corlath might have been a dislikable character for kidnapping Harry, but it's clear that he has little choice in the matter when his hereditary magic takes control. The kelar that the leaders of Damar (as well as some of its other citizens) is gifted with can be as much a crippling curse as a gift. It's clear that ruling a dwindling kingdom threatened by foreign colonials and magically powerful enemies intent on conquest is no easy task, yet Corlath is beloved and respected, not just by his loyal Riders, but all his subjects. He never treats Harry with anything but the utmost respect and with the passage of time, they grow gradually closer.

Harry is thrown into a situation that might have made anyone freak out, but deals remarkably with it. Clearly an adventurous spirit, as soon as it's clear that she's in no danger with Corlath and his people, she tries to learn as much as possible about her new surroundings and the new culture she's become thrust into. She's polite, kind and works diligently to learn her new skills. When she arrives in the desert, she cannot mount a horse without aid, and some months later, she's good enough that she bests all the challengers and wins one of the coveted spots as King's Rider. She tries her best to fit in, but cannot ignore the lessons she's learned as the sister of a military man. Seeing that Corlath's enemies might gain a serious advantage if a strategic mountain pass goes undefended, she risks everything by going off alone to seek aid from the Homeland soldiers to secure the pass.

As well as being a wonderful adventure novel, there is also a subtle and slow-burning romance in the book which completely knocked my socks off the first time I read the book. For all that it's not really openly acknowledged by Corlath or Harry for much of the book, it's quite obvious that they are perfect for each other and it takes an excruciatingly long time before they admit their feelings to themselves or the other. I loved the book the first time I read it, and having now read the prequel, which gives this book even more depth, I am gratified that I enjoyed it just as much now as when I first discovered it. Such a lovely little book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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