I have noticed that some of the best fantasy stories rely on an interesting device; they start out rather mundanely, in a mundane setting with a rather mundane though interesting protagonist. Then they move the protagonist–and the reader–into the fantastic realm where most of the adventure takes place. Sometimes the move is sudden, a matter of stepping through the looking glass or into a fairy ring. But some storytellers take their time, dipping their toes, absently wading, getting us deeper till we find ourselves immersed without any sense of transition. Only at the end, when we close the book, do we realize how far from reality the clever writer has taken us. Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword is this kind of story.
I first read it back in high school, and it was years before I realized how clever McKinley had been. At its heart it’s an epic fantasy–the story of a faded kingdom standing against an evil invader. There is a heroic king and a dark lord. There are prophecies, wild magics, battles, an enchanted sword. And there is a young girl name Harry Crewe. And the opening lines are about orange juice.
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.
Harry was born in Homeland, a cool, forested isle very obviously England. Her mother died when she was young, so she grew up a bit of a tomboy, and when her father died she had only her brother Richard, now a junior officer in Her Majesty’s Service, to depend upon. And Richard is stationed at a distant fort in Daria, at the borders of Homeland’s empire. Fortunately, the fort’s Resident and his wife, Sir Charles and Lady Amelia, are childless and perfectly happy to bring Harry to stay with them at the Residence. Of course hot and dusty Daria is quite different from cool and green Homeland, and Harry is homesick.
McKinley goes to great lengths, using Harry, to establish how very mundane and English Homelanders are,and how mundane the desert town of Istan and its fort are. It’s not our world, she seems to say, but it’s not so very different. They have trains, and guns, and orange juice. It might as well be North Africa.
Then she begins nudging us through the door. Sir Charles is expecting a visit from an emissary of the Free Hillfolk, the wild people just beyond their borders, last remnants of the Old Kingdom. When Harry meets Corlath, their king, she experiences a strange shock. Corlath brings a warning, of danger from beyond the mountain passes, preparing to sweep away Hillfolk and Homelanders alike. When a well-meaning Sir Charles can’t help him, Corlath and his company departs, but, goaded by his royal magic–which he sees as something of a curse–Corlath returns in the dead of night, passing through walls and stealing away a dreaming Harry. And so the adventure begins.
Things get much more fantastical from here out, of course, but Robin McKinley preserves the spell she spent so much time weaving. Magic, even when obvious, is never understood: it’s magical. With Harry, the reader is thrown into a world of miracles and terrible wonder, and McKinley deftly avoids all the cliches that might develop. And this is the payoff; through all her adventures and changes, Harry remains Harry, the young woman with whom we have already so strongly identified. She is the wardrobe door, and her wonder is our wonder, her tears our tears, her victory, our victory, and her happiness, our happiness. The story ends almost as domestically as it begins, and, closing the book I can’t stop smiling.