Upon the death of her father, young Harry Crewe leaves her Homeland to stay in the remote eastern military outpost where her brother is stationed. She finds the strange desert landscape odd and exotic, and loves hearing stories about the Free Hillfolk and their strange powers. She is restless and bored at the parties and dinners, and dislikes making small talk with people who are sure to find her overly tall and awkward. She longs to travel across the desert and into those unknown mountains, where no Homelander has ever ventured.
Political and military issues bring the ruler of the Hillfolk to their outpost for a talk which, due to cultural differences and the innate arrogance of the Homelanders, does not end well. Harry arrives at her uncle's house just in time to see the Hillfolk contingent leaving, and when her eyes meet the eyes of one of the men, it is a disturbing and intense experience. When she is kidnapped by him several days later, and finds herself riding behind him on his astonishingly beautiful horse, Harry is frightened but finds the strength within herself to endure, to remain calm and carve out a role for herself in which she is not a pawn or a victim, but a force to be reckoned with.
I read this book when it first came out, and while I had fond recollections of it, I have to say my reread made for a completely different experience. It made me wonder how much of this book had flown over my head the first time I read it - and realize how glad I was that I'd taken the time to revisit it. Harry is a wonderful heroine, sympathetic, smart and strong as well as very real and fallible. The romantic tension that is set up between her and her inscrutable Hillfolk captor is very well done, and the way in which their relationship progresses reminds me quite a bit of Kristin Cashore's novels. In fact, I'd say that those who have enjoyed Graceling and Fire would find The Blue Sword a particularly rewarding read.
McKinley has a way of dropping the reader into the action, and filling in the background of the world and characters on the fly as the story progresses that I find to be very effective. There are no long pauses for description and background information that bring the story screeching to a halt, and I like that, even if sometimes I'm confused for a little while. Her world building is extensive and evocative, and when I closed the book, I felt as though I'd spent a lot of time in the desert world of Damar and gotten to know quite a few wonderful people very well. I was sad that it ended, although there is a sequel (a prequel, actually) set in the same world (The Hero and the Crown), which I will have to reread soon. While this novel is targeted at teens and is a wonderful coming-of-age story, it is the sort of YA novel that is equally appealing to adults. I loved revisiting this book, and I highly recommend it.
The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley (Greenwillow Books, 1982)
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The Book Smugglers: "Ms. McKinley—who I don’t think is capable of writing anything less than superb—hits all the right notes with this classic coming of age hero story. Harry (brilliant name, by the way) is a very real character. She questions her abilities and decisions, but follows her heart and bravely confronts any evil and obstacle in her path."
One Librarian's Book Reviews: "When I discovered this book, I was blown away by the story, McKinley's beautiful writing, and the character Harry. She is the perfect sword-wielding tough fantasy heroine and I haven't forgotten about her since."