Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Blue Sword & The Hero and the Crown

Author: Robin McKinley
Publisher: Penguin
Released: 1982, 1984
Genre: YA Fantasy
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In Damar, the royal family is blessed - or cursed - with the Gift, or kelar. Aerin is a legend by the time Harry, an Outlander, becomes part of the world of magic, and Harry has some sort of connection to this legend. With Aerin's guidance, and the flowering of her own Gift, Harry, or Harimad-sol as she comes to be known to the Damarians, comes to terms with and embraces her fate and does all she can to fully serve her new people and their king. Aerin had faced a similar dilemma of not knowing exactly what her place was, as the daughter of the king and a witchwoman whom most of the citizens had hated and feared. Both heroines take their fates in their own hands and carve out names for themselves, winning fame, glory, and love, and their own self-image.

This is the umpteenth time I read these books, and each time I read them they get richer and richer. I never fail to be sucked into this world, not only for the amazing magical landscape but for the spunky yet sensitive, fiery yet vulnerable heroines. Robin McKinley has said that she can't stand whiny heroines, and I love her heroines because they are always strong and take-charge, but they still never lose their humanity. One of the scenes that really stand out to me is when Harry and Corlath are sleeping in the tent on the way to the City after Corlath kidnapped Harry. The image etched in my mind is of Harry biting the pillow as she cries herself to sleep and Corlath propped on one elbow listening to her cry, aching himself for her pain. Even more than the fierce battle scenes, these quiet moments of raw emotion speak to me, and that, I think, is what really makes up the books and their power. They're about people with greater destinies, with world-changing fates, but these people are still people, still ordinary people. The battle scenes are terrifying and amazing, but what stays with me is how these girls are just girls - thrust into situations where fates of whole countries rest on them, but they remain ordinary girls with ordinary feelings, pain of rejection, exhaustion, the need to be loved. It reminds me of a line from the movie Notting Hill, as Julia Roberts' character, the movie star, says: "I'm just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her." The way these heroines are still really ordinary girls is wonderful. That's a balance that's sometimes hard to achieve, but Robin does it seemingly effortlessly.

Robin mentioned this once, I forget where, in connection to what order the books should be read. Although Arein's story in The Hero and the Crown happens long before Harry's in The Blue Sword, Robin wrote Sword first and intends for readers to read that first. Part of the reason, she said, is for readers to first hear of Aerin as a legend, as larger than life, as Harry sees her as a formidable older sister, kind but someone you're in awe of. And then you see Aerin in her own story, and you realize that even legendary heroines are still just girls, with their own problems, flaws, and obstacles. I love how that works, because as a reader, it made me feel that much more connected to the two heroines, as they muddle through and stumble across their destinies and then take those destinies firmly in hand and mold them to the way they can now that they've become stronger.

Aside from all that, I want to quote a reviewer's sentence about The Blue Sword: "McKinley knows her geography of fantasy, the nuances of the language, the atmosphere of magic" (The Washington Post). It's something I love about all of Robin's books as well. The magic is in no way forced, and it's very obvious that Robin knows her worlds inside and out. When you're reading, you don't even notice it because everything just flows so smoothly, but when I think of it after I've finished the book, I see how deeply I've been involved in the world, and how much detail I can recall about how this world works - and all of it is incorporated so seamlessly into the story. And the atmosphere - each book and each world has its own atmosphere, but it's true that they all have that "atmosphere of magic" that transport you to another reality for some time.

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