The Blue Sword

Robin McKinley
The Blue Sword Cover

The Blue Sword

Parnassus Reads

I generally enjoy McKinley's work, but I have to give this one only 2 stars because of the shockingly thinly-veiled orientalism present in the novel. Questions of colonialism are part of the plot of the novel, as you have the colonizers in tense peace with the colonized in a let's-just-leave-each-other-alone kind of relationship. The peace is almost dissolved when the leader of the indigenous nomadic tribe comes to the colonial border town and asks for help in a coming war with another group, the degraded, magically warped barbarians from the north. The white colonialists of course say no; why should they help a people they want to conquer? Let the others wipe them out for them, right? McKinley definitely offers commentary on this mentality, and this is not where my criticism lies.

No, my biggest issue with this book and the power relations she explores, is the blatant orientalism expressed. The main character, who has blonde hair and blue eyes, begins to feel a certain longing for and comfort in the desert, which as a foreign transplant, she is not supposed to feel. The desert and the desert peoples are the colonial Other; they are not to be considered equals, interesting, or, and especially, not desirable. So what happens when this too tall, too strong, blonde haired, blue-eyed teenage girl meets the leader of the desert tribes? Why, she can't stop thinking about him, of course! And when he comes back to abduct her from her home (because his mystical magic aura told him too) she puts up no protest, and is more than willing to adopt these brown-skinned, exotic but frightening Others as her own. Indeed, she even has some of their blood running though her veins, to the great shame of her older brother. Not only is she 1/8th desert tribe, she is also the wielder of great desert-people magic and the true heir of the titular blue sword. Only she can unite all of the nomadic desert tribes against this new foe . (If you want a better version of this story, read T.E. Lawrence's The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.)

My other major issue with this book is that it's supposed to feature a strong female lead. Sure this girl can ride a horse. Sure she can fight with a sword. But for a girl who lets herself be abducted, marries her abductor, and can only wield the true power of the blue sword with the help of her soon-to-be husband, I find little to recommend her. Finally, McKinley's prose in this book is uneven at best, disjointed at worst. There are several places where characters shift between an overly stiff, formal tone in one sentence or paragraph, and in the very next are using contractions. I give this two stars for trying.