Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword is a book I’d have loved when I was eleven, and which I did love when I got to read it at nineteen. It’s the story that has everything for the teenage Jo. It has a female hero who doesn’t need to be rescued and who does everything for herself. She doesn’t know she’s special, but she is, she is! She goes to the farthest corner of the Homeland Empire, whence she is kidnapped and taken into the free magic kingdom of Damar where she finds out how special she is. She is taught how to ride and fight and do both better than everyone else, and then proceeds to save everyone. She gets a special horse and magic sword and a special panther-sized cat, too. Also, she kicks ass.
I’m over-summarizing, of course. I do genuinely love this book, it seduces me even now. Like most of McKinley, it’s a comfort book for me, and I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading it. The thing that makes it better than that wish-fulfillment summary is the very real personality of Harry (“Angharad,” later “Harimad-sol”) Crewe and the solid culture of the two worlds she finds herself caught between. And it’s beautifully written. The details are all perfect, from the orange juice for breakfast on to the details of the tents of the Hillfolk. The texture is rich and absolutely convincing. The magic is wonderfully integrated into the world. If you’re only going to read one ass-kicking-female-hero-saves-the-fantasy-kingdom book in your life, it should be this one.
There’s one central thing that is simultaneously both the most interesting and the most problematic. The novel begins with Harry among the Homelanders in Daria, the colonized unmagical part of Damar. Damar is a fantasy Afghanistan, and Daria is a fantasy version of British India. On the one hand this is an awesome thing to do, daring and exciting—especially in 1982. These are interesting things to be dealing with. “What if something like the British Empire had colonized a fantasy country?” is a really fascinating question. This is definitely part of what gives The Blue Sword its charm, and which makes it quite different from everything else. On the other hand, it raises questions that are no doubt more apparent now than they were in 1982—the questions of cultural appropriation and of appropriate use of people of color. Beyond that there’s an issue raised purely because of being the kind of book it is—the kind of book where the people Need a Hero to Solve Everything and the protagonist is that hero, combined with a setting where the people are dark-skinned and the hero is light-skinned and from a different culture, and really does solve everything. “What these people need is a honky.”
Now, Damar isn’t really Afghanistan, nor Daria India, and the culture of Damar is definitely its own thing (it can also be seen in The Hero and the Crown, written later but set earlier) so there’s no question of McKinley getting anyone’s culture wrong.
But it is a country of brown-skinned people colonized by a country of white-skinned ones, and we see enough about the Homelanders that we really have no question about them being based on British India, or anyway based on the literary imagination of British India. And that raises its own questions about colonization.
We don’t see any of the Darians except as scenery. The colonized are given no voice at all. The Damarians, who we do see up close, in detail and in their own point of view, are pretty much wholly admirable. They definitely don’t want to be conquered. Their king at one point thinks that if the Homelanders conquer them they won’t be free again in his lifetime. They face a literal demonic menace to the North, and they’d like to ally with the Homelanders, but aren’t prepared to come under their control. They have a complex culture that is seen as different but not just as civilized as the Homelander culture, in many ways superior to it. The Damarians are terrific, apart from needing Harry to get them organized.
The real problem is that we do see quite a lot of the white Homelander conquerers of Daria. I think I could forgive McKinley Harry, because (to be fair) it is the kind of book it is, and she does it so well. As for the Damarians needing her to set everything right, well, that could happen to the best of us. Besides, Harry is part-Damarian, though she doesn’t know it until later. What I can’t swallow are the other Homelanders. They’re not just privileged white colonizers, they’re privileged white colonizers who actually love the country they have colonized and mean entirely well for it. They are at worst a little constricted and patronizing, and nobody, not even the Damarians, seems to think there’s the slightest problem with them having colonized the rest of Daria. Colonel Jack Dedman goes with Harry to make a last ditch stand in the pass, risking his career because he loves the place so much. He’s such a cliche, and a cliche from nineteenth century British writing about India. He could have ridden straight out of George Manville Fenn—Kipling would have made him more nuanced.
Nevertheless, I remain very fond of this book.