This, my friends, is how young adult fantasy is done. In The Blue Sword, Robin McKinley has created a world out of whole cloth and polished it until it shines. Or in this case, until it is a dusty desert full of horse riding warriors, a dwindling magic, demon barbarians invading from the north, and civilized white men invading from across the ocean. McKinley is a master of prose, and this book has stood the test of time for almost 25 years now.
The Blue Swordis the story of Harry Crewe — don’t you dare call her by her given name of Angharad — who, upon the death of her parents, is sent to live at a fort on the Homeland frontier with her brother who is in the colonial army. Unlike most of the colonists, Harry is fascinated by the desert, and when Corlath, the leader of the Free Hillfolk of Damar, comes to the Homeland fort to negotiate for assistance with the invaders from the north, she is mesmerized by the power and magic glowing in his golden eyes. Corlath, compelled by the mysterious and magical kelar, kidnaps Harry and carries her off into the desert with him and his men. Harry soon finds herself mysteriously at home in this new culture and begins training to take part in the laprun trials, the warrior trials for the Damarians. But when her understanding of her own role clashes against her feelings for Corlath and the Damarian people, she abandons the only happiness she has known and fulfills the responsibilities she knows are hers.
There are two points that I feel need to be addressed here, that normally would drive me crazy about a story. First, the heroine gets kidnapped by the hero, and then they fall in love. Second, the white person comes in and out-natives the natives. For some reason, neither of these bothers me in The Blue Sword. Harry is not kidnapped out of lust or love, but as part of a purpose that neither she nor Corlath understand at the time. There is no forced intimacy that turns into affection, but rather an emotional relationship that slowly develops over time and is based on shared interests. As for the white woman coming in to be better at native culture than the natives, she works hard — and on stimulants, which may give some readers pause — to master her skill set as quickly as possible, and then ends up leading not the natives, but her own people. Her lack of understanding of the Damarian culture actually causes significant problems for her in trying to accomplish her goals. And there’s one other reason why this doesn’t bother me, the way it made me rant about Avatar, but I won’t include that here for spoiler reasons.
The slowly evolving relationship between Harry and Corlath is one of the finest I have ever read in young adult fantasy. What could easily have been just another coming of age story in the hands of a lesser author becomes a gem of a tale. The Blue Sword has a permanent place on my shelf of honor. I’ve read this book multiple times over the last two decades and it is as magical the fifth or sixth time as it is the first. It is highly recommended for all readers, not just young adult audiences. The Blue Sword will not disappoint.