There are some books you absolutely love as a child and later try re-reading because you remember how much you loved them. Except, something changes. You begin to notice things like plot flaws and grammar problems. A plotline that seemed totally original and creative to a 9….10…12 year old is utterly familiar and even a tad boring for 17…18…24 year old. And you kind of wonder, what happened?
In 2011 I wrote a glowing review of one of my favorite books, The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley. I’m going to include the review below. It tells a lot about me, or at least who I was. I was very proud of that review. Except only a year later I came home from college and re-read The Blue Sword and realized…it was nowhere near as good as I remembered it. In fact, it contained a lot of magic and plot elements that I disliked and even criticized in other fantasy stories. Yet somehow, I had totally missed them in this book. Missed? How do you miss obvious things like that? I am not really sure. I read it, of course, many times and certainly was aware of a certain lacking in the plot but it didn’t matter. I was caught up in my favorite parts of the story. I wasn’t going to nit-pick. Maybe it is because of that this book holds a special place in my heart, flaws and all. It was a consistent friend through the hazardous days of high school (…and high school is very hazardous, be you home-teached or public schooled.)
So here is the review I initially wrote, and here are my thoughts now….a little older and (theoretically) a little (teensy-weensy) bit wiser.
She scowled at her glass of orange juice. To think that she had been delighted when she first arrived here – was it only three months ago? – with the prospect of fresh orange juice every day…
How do I explain the feeling I get when I read those words, the beginning sentences of this book? It is like a shiver goes down my back. Like I just bit into one of those oranges…and it is sweeter and juicier then I expected. Suddenly I feel like I am everywhere and nowhere. A part of me is already with Harry in Istan, drinking orange juice and attempting to be pleased, but another part of me is back to where I’ve stood so many times, behind the last bookshelf at the library, consuming the magical words I’ve dawdled in and played with time and time again. Because that has become as much a part of the memory, too…catching a few words of a favorite book in my favorite way to escape the stresses of school and life…
The Blue Sword is probably my favorite book by Robin McKinley. It holds its own in that precious list of books I can’t even put words to, books I’ll read and re-read and probably re-read again. Maybe someday I’ll try and make it a shelf, but I’ve tried before, and failed.
The plot of The Blue Sword…
Harry Crewe’s Father dies and sent to live with her soldier brother in the wild, untamed Istan, almost a combination of the unsettled United States colonies during the early 1700’s and colonial India in the early 1900’s. I could be wrong there, but that is the imaging I’ve always gotten. She tries to please Sir Charles and Lady Amelia, the kind couple who took her in, but settling down to the relaxed, lazy life of Istan drives her crazy. She loves the desert though…the mysterious wasteland hovering tantalizingly just outside the settlement. No Homelander lives there; it is the land of the mysterious old Damarians, the Free Hillfolk. Rumor has it they possess strange powers, and many a man would give his life for the opportunity to ride once upon their beautiful, powerful horses.
When Corlath, the King of the Hilkfold, comes to Istan with a warning and the offer of an alliance, he only half thinks they’ll believe him. It was a desperate move, but these were desperate times. The tall, blond haired young woman he saw as he stormed out should have been only another face…but unfortunately, it is one that won’t go away. His Gift, the trait passed through the Royal bloodline, won’t let him forget it. In fact, it will drive him to do the unthinkable…
Kidnap the Homelander Girl.
When I first picked up this book…I did so because I felt somehow like I had read it before. I have never been able to figure out why. But oh! I am so glad I did. At the risk of repeating myself, this is the book that, frustrated with the junk our library called teen books, I’d rush over and pick up off the shelf. And I’d re-read those first few sentences, and maybe if my day had gone particularly bad, I’d allow myself to sink into a nearby chair and just keep reading. The first sentence.
Then a paragraph.
Then a page…
You know how some little kids have blankies? Well, I have books.
And this was one of them.
But enough about that, what makes this book good?
Well, Harry Crewe for one. She’s an amazing character. She grows, changes…finds purpose. She has emotions, but they’re not irritating. You don’t feel like beheading the heroine after she spends pages whining about her everything and everyone in her life. But she isn’t annoyingly perfect. She’s human, yet strong and believable . Most of all, what I think makes readers appreciate her…and what makes girls of all ages feel like they can relate to her…is simply because of who she is. Especially when we first find her, longing for something. Hunting for purpose. What teenage girl would argue they’ve never felt that way? Felt like running off into the wild unknown, daydreaming about handsome kings and horses and destiny. I sure have. And Harry…well, she kind of does too. But most of all, we look at her and see a somewhat forgotten girl. Someone who lives each day kind of bored, strong and beautiful, yet surprisingly unaware of it…and unaware of the gift she holds (oooh…yeah, I’m not giving anything away 😉 ) And then one day…BAM! She learns who she is and there is adventure and romance and, frankly, awesomeness.
And if you like horses? There are some wicked-awesome horses in this book.
But there is also a bit of everything. It’s a fantastic plot. It weaves fantasy at some of its best, with actual struggles and memorable, good characters and interesting elements. Of adventure and romance and a hint of mystery and suspense.
I know what you’re thinking now…after all this rambling, why did I give it four stars?
That is a bit trickier to answer, but in all fairness it must be done.
1. The writing. Oh it is good! Very good, but not amazing. It needs just a little more maturing to be worth five stars.
2. I have a confession…I didn’t adore (positively, head-over-heels) adore the Corlath. I know! Shocking. Horrifying. But I didn’t. I liked him a great deal…but he wasn’t a five star guy.
3. Well…I guess simply, I love the book, but it isn’t a five star story. The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer was five stars. Do Hard Things by Alex and Brett Harris is five stars. This is four stars.
If you love adventure, romance, or even ever felt like running away and finding a purpose…this book is for you. It is passionate and adventure filled and truly one of those forgotten books that proves how stupid modern teen writing is. Compare it to a “modern” fantasy novel, Graceling or Mistwood … The Blue Sword just blows them out of the water. There is no comparison.
So, if you have made it to the end of this tiresomely long review of how much I love this book…congratulations.
Really, if you are a teenage girl (like at all!) who has ever struggled with feeling forgotten, longed for a purpose, or simply just wanted to chuck life and head for the hills…you’ll love this book.
I know I do.
To complete in the line I began with…
But she had been eager to be delighted; this was to be her home, and she wanted badly to like it, to be grateful for it – to behave well, to make her brother proud of her and Sir Charles and Lady Amelia pleased with their generosity…
On a very far-off side note, while I recommend this book, I do not recommend its sequel… The Hero and The Sword. Many of the reviewers on here mention how much they love it. Splendid. I found it had all the things that made this book lose a star…and three more.
“[Harry] had always suffered from a vague restlessness, a longing for adventure that she told herself severely was the result of reading too many novels when she was a small child.”
How can you not smile reading that line? That’s genius.
In order to give an accurate analysis of this book, I decided to read some of the reviews on Goodreads. And…I see a pattern. I wasn’t the only 16-year-old girl to find reassurance in the strange, fantasy world of Istan. People relate. It may not be the most stunning writing and Harry may not be the most challenged of heroines, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that for a quiet bookworm in the back corner of a library, sometimes what you need isn’t a heroine that takes out an armada after defeating all her demons. Sometimes you just need a heroine who finds herself plunged into a fantasy world where she feels like she belongs and because of that is able to – for no explainable reason – harness a magic strong enough to take out an army.
Skimming through some of the one and two star reviews, it really struck me that though this book may stand or fall from a purely analytical nature, that isn’t what is important. It really doesn’t matter if it is predictable. It doesn’t matter if the heroine is like “all other heroines” with her ability to learn how to fight within weeks when she has no previous training or that she has a cool horse or an amazing sword and “all fantasy heroines must have that”. That’s part of the appeal. Because this doesn’t have to be a teaching manual for original, creative stories. This doesn’t have to be a book that entertains adults. This doesn’t have to have flowing, beautiful prose. There are plenty of books out there that are “original” and “well written” and totally stink. There are hundreds of books that may fit every criteria for excellence and yet have never encouraged a single reader.
The Blue Sword may actually be the first book I would unhesitatingly characterize as “Young Adult.” The themes are a little too complicated for Grade school and Middle school. The plot is a little too predictable for adult readers. But for those magical, tumultuous, confusing, and hassling years of high school…this is a book in its element. One of the one star reviewers complained that the heroine “marries her abductor” and how that was undermining strong womanhood, etc. etc. Well, guess what? That’s romantic in this story. It’s not morbid. It’s fun. It’s the idea of adventure and romance and finding yourself in a situation so unlike your own you shine. That’s what the young bookworm in the corner dreams of. You can’t try and be “rational”. Allow her to dream.
The Blue Sword may not be a book I continue to re-read and re-read for some remarkable plot line or terrific characterizations or great life lesson. It is the sort of book I will have on my shelves someday, however. It is the sort of book I will put in the hands of my daughters someday when they become teenagers. It is the sort of book I recommend, not for its greatness, but for its simple spirit. Ultimately it is the fulfillment Neil Gaiman’s misquote G.K. Chesterton:
“Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”