|The Blue Sword|
This was the second Robin McKinley book I read, including Beauty, and I had forgotten how good it was. It is set on a earth-like world with many parallels but with a bit of magic. Harry is from Homeland, a thinly-disguised Great Britain, and she is living in Damar, analogous to either Africa or India. Her father has recently died and she is left penniless in a Victorian-like time where women have no value and have no freedom or wealth not given to them by a man. Her only refuge is with the head of her brother’s regiment on the frontier.
Damar is my idea of hell. It’s dusty, dry desert and is hot and miserable. For some reason, Harry loves it. She’s fascinated by the “beauty” of the land and its people, which makes her unusual among the people from back home who all count down to the day they can escape. All except for one old soldier, Jack, who seems to be the only one who appreciates the beauty of the country they’ve invaded.
For indeed, they are invaders. They have taken over this land to strip it of resources. Because, at its heart, this is a book about colonialism from before a time when this was the new hot issue in literature. Harry’s contemporaries do not even try to understand the hill people. They think of them as colorful and unknowable and quaint much like a bunch of tourists on a safari gawking at the natives with a bit of contempt mixed with superiority. Everything changes when Harry is kidnapped by the king of the hill people and she is forced to learn more about these people than anyone from the Homeland has ever understood.
If it weren’t for the magic in this book, it would have been depressing. I hate books about the invasion and subjugation of a people by colonial forces. But, the situation is completely different when the natives wield real power that is resistant to the invader’s technology. This was the first book I ever read that took me on this particular journey from outside observer to integrated insider and it is still may be the best. While it is a fascinating story of adventure and magic, it is even more a morality tale about not judging a culture by one’s own standards. It teaches, without being preachy, that one can never know another’s life from the outside. As Harry’s perceptions shift, so do the reader’s and you will find yourself rooting for the hill people long before the book is over.
It’s a lovely book and a powerful one. It should be required reading for anyone who has to cross a cultural divide, and in this modern era, isn’t that all of us?
Four ground-breaking stars.