Growing up as a child, I always wanted to be Harry. Harimad-sol – laprun minta and damalur-sol. With a chestnut warhorse, a pet leopard, a magic sword and the ability to make desert kings fall hopelessly in love with me while I saved the world.
Robin McKinley‘s The Blue Sword is one of my all-time favourite novels, and a comfort book that I pull out for regular re-reading. First published in 1982 it tells the story of Harry Crewe, an orphan sent to the farthest reaches of the British Empire, where her brother, Richard, is serving in the military. The tomboyish Harry slowly falls in love with the wilds of Daria (as the Empire calls it) and learns that she is not the only Homelander who feels that way. She is kidnapped by Corlath, king of the Hillfolk, after his magic Gift prompts him to do it, trains as a warrior and ultimately saves the day by defeating the Northern demon-king.
So far, so typical for a YA novel: heroic young woman comes of age and saves the day when none of the adults will listen to her. But there is much to lift The Blue Sword above the pack, despite its flaws.
This is a novel about colonialism. It falls prey to Orientalism in the way that it romanticises Daria. And Harry is a bit of a White Saviour (we learn Harry has mixed race ancestry late in the book, but culturally she is wholly British). We see very little from or about the viewpoints of those living under colonial rule – they are nameless, faceless servants and tradespeople.
But McKinley shows us the fragility of colonial rule at the edges of Empire. Authority is notional at best, based on lines drawn on maps and the presence of a small number of Empire administrators, diplomats and military, who live in a self-contained immigrant bubble. There is little investment or interest in the place beyond the amount of the map that can be coloured pink, and the availability of natural resources (profitable mines in the area).
Language and miscommunication are key themes in The Blue Sword. The colonial habit of renaming things and places out of arrogance or the inability to pronounce indigenous words. Corlath is king of Damar, not of the Hillfolk. The main town has been renamed Istan by the Empire in place of its real name Ihistan, and the pass known as Ritger’s Gap by the colonisers is the Madamer Gate to the people of Damar. Miscommunication extends to cultural concepts and rituals: “those funny patched sashes the Hillfolk wear”. The few translators struggle, emphasising the separation between Damarian and Homelander.
Harry is the bridge between Damar and Empire – an uncomfortable place to be, caught between two worlds. And McKinley’s message is one that success happens when these cultures work together in a spirit of shared endeavour and mutual respect for different perspectives and traditions. Diplomacy rather than colonisation is the right approach – but it is one that requires mutual respect and the ability to listen.
Goodreads rating: 5*