Desert Isle Keeper
The Blue Sword
It begins with a glass of orange juice at breakfast.
Harry Crewe, orphan Homelander and newly come to the northernmost Homelander border patrol station, has nothing to do. Her new home is lovely, her guardians are everything that is kind, and the officers are friendly. But she has always been an octagonal peg (a very tall one, come to that) on a board of circular holes: if need be she can be forced into one, but she would really be happier with an octagonal hole. Driven by a restlessness she cannot explain, she does not sleep, for with days devoid of purpose she need not sleep. So she is merely first at breakfast every day, with a glass of orange juice, and every night she sits at her window, gazing sightlessly into the desert Hills.
Corlath, King of Damar and the Hillfolk, is fighting a losing war against both the invading barbarian, non-human Northerners and the insidiously encroaching Outlanders (i.e. Homelanders) to the south. With the exception of scattered settlements throughout the Hills, his people live in a city of stone, and where their civilization thrived and prospered five hundred years ago it is now desert and isolation. But though his people have dwindled to a shard of their former numbers they remain the best horsed warriors ever seen. And so in a last effort to save his people, he swallows his pride, rides south to the Outlander post and asks for help from the Outlander commissioner, Sir Charles – Harry’s guardian. Corlath needs only to glance at Harry to see that she carries something in her, an unexpected power that he does not understand nor she suspect, but that his kelar tells him will help his Hillfolk. And so he does what he must, and abducting Harry in the middle of the night, carries her off into the desert.
Harry, whose quiet, unexciting life before this consisted of horses and her family, is chucked into the Hills with a people, a language, and a king she does not understand. She rebels at Corlath’s insistence that she can fight for his country; she grudgingly touches the first sword Corlath thrusts into her hand, but shudders at the innate brutality warring with elegance in its structure. And yet as she is trained at war and immersed in the culture and language, she begins to understand Damar and her king, and with understanding comes love.
Robin McKinley’s book about a young woman’s journey of discovery captivated me from the first moment I read it years ago. Her prose is beautiful, describing deserts and forests, state dinners and tournaments, and battles and their aftermath with naturalism and grace. She has a meandering style that just stops short of long-windedness. While that would surely be unfavorable to editors nowadays, it is entirely in keeping with the classic, almost archaic quality of her writing. Although not a long book, the writing suggests such an epic scope that I am always astonished to remember that, actually, this is a story about a very small civilization in a corner of Harry’s world. Yet this resonates with one of the book’s themes, to look beyond one’s immediate vision into the peripheral. Ms. McKinley’s Homelanders and their empire bear a strong resemblance to the 19th-century British Empire, and Corlath admits that given a choice between an Outlander or a Northern victory, he would prefer the latter, for the
“Outlanders were stubborn, and … courageous; often they were stupid … and they believed nothing they could not see with their eyes. But they did try hard … and they were often kind. If the Outlanders won, they would send doctors and farmers … and bricklayers, and within a generation his people would be as faceless as the rest of the Outlander [Hillfolk]. And the Outlanders were very able administrators …. What they once got their hands on, they held. There would be no rebellion that Corlath would ever see.”
But in the end (and I do not give anything away, I hope, to suggest that there is nothing but a happy ending?) the beginnings of equal diplomatic and cultural exchange have occurred, and everyone is happier for it.
Harry is the instigator of this new era, caught as she is between the culture she grew up with and the culture she has grown to love. (To give you an idea of Damar, the Hillfolk have the horses and approximate clothing of Arabia, the swords of Middle Earth, the racial diversity of Spain, the universal literacy of 10th century Europe and the gender equality of 2010.) Given to introspection rather than tempestuous displays, Harry is gifted with an above-average intelligence and a tendency to over-analysis, which makes her one of the most refreshingly honest heroines I have ever met. Her innate spirit does not initially accept the fate given to her, but after rebellion comes accord. Mostly she is quiet, a little sardonic (after taking a bath: “I bet Corlath’s shampoo doesn’t smell like flowers”), uncomfortable with her height, and given to mind-racing rather than whining. All of which make for my favorite heroine ever. And the love story’s darn good too.
The Blue Sword is the one book that I try to carry with me at every change of address. I glory in the fluid prose; I laugh with Harry’s friends; I sympathize with Corlath and fall a little more in love with him every time; I dream about Damar; and I want to be Harry’s friend. If The Blue Sword were the last book I ever read, I think I would expire a very happy woman.