The Damar Series
by Robin McKinley
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted May 25, 2023
1: The Blue Sword / 2: The Hero and the Crown
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The fifth of Robin McKinley's books I've read, and the first that is not an adaptation of a famous fairy tale, or an original story in the same vein. That does not mean it is not similar to other stories you may have read. The Blue Sword was her second novel, two of the Folktales coming quite a few years later. It is a "chosen one" epic, wherein the main character fulfills a prophecy and destiny of which they had previously been unaware. The country is Damar, which had been colonized and exploited by Homeland for at least eighty years. This is a secondary world fantasy, Damar's geographic location not specified, and Homeland is not identified beyond that, but it is easy to assume it is a stand-in for England, with Damar similar to India or another of Great Britain's colonies. A couple of things that came to mind were Afghanistan, this book coming about three years after the start of the Soviet-Afghan war, and the 1975 film The Wind and the Lion, which was based on an historical event, but in Morocco. The film changed the real life man and stepson into a woman and two children as the ones kidnapped.
The Blue Sword was a Locus and Mythopoeic finalist for fantasy novel, as well as being a Newberry Honor Book.
Harry Crewe comes to Damar after her father dies, her mother having passed five years previously. Harry is a nickname she chose herself since she did not like her given name, which we don't learn until about halfway through the book, and perhaps because it might have been a clue as to what to expect. Harry's father had told her that all of his wealth, what little might remain, would go to her older brother, Richard, who was in the military and stationed in Damar at Fort George Munday near Istan. That is an abbreviation of the Damarian name of Ihistan, and it is one of the reasons I thought of Afghanistan. After her father dies she travels by ship to Damar, to live in the Residency at Istan with the area's governor, Sir Charles, and his wife Amelia. Although the word is never used, many would think of Harry as a tomboy. She loves horses and is an accomplished rider. Similar to the way Beauty was described in that novel, Harry thinks of herself as homely, certainly not pretty. She is strong and stocky, but also taller than most men she knows. She has heard stories of Damarians, the Hillfolk, but the only ones she has met are servants at the Residency. That is, until the Hillfolk's king, Corlath, comes to the Residency to plead for Sir Charles's aid in combatting the Northerners, who are threatening to invade. Sir Charles rebuffs his demands, and as Corlath storms away he notices Harry staring at him, and against his will he meets her gaze for several seconds.
Corlath and other Damarians, but not as many as in the past, have the Gift of kelar, which grants both visions of the past, and possible futures, as well as mystical powers used in battle. Corlath has several visions of Harry, which he interprets as an indication she will be of importance to him. One of the gifts of kelar is of stealth, including the ability to move undetected, even passing through solid objects. In the dead of night, Corlath returns to the Residency, passes into Harry's room, and abducts her, using a spell or potion to assure she stays asleep. When she awakes she is in a Hillfolk camp, miles away from Istan. Over the next few days they travel through the desert to Corlath's main camp. This being an YA title, there is no implication of rape or violence against Harry, in fact Corlath and his men show her much respect. She is even initiated into Corlath's cadre of Riders when she drinks the Meedhar, the Water of Sight. She has a vision of a red-haired woman warrior, and later learns she had spoken in the ancient Damarian tongue, which few still understood, although Corlath does. And that was even before she learned the common Damarian language currently in use. Corlath assigns her a trainer, Mathin, who not only teaches her the common tongue, but also Damarian riding and fighting techniques. The hardest part of riding their large horses was getting used to no bridle and reins, and no stirrups, only controlling the horse with pressure of the legs and other muscular movements.
I won't detail Harry's training, or the laprun trials, which she wins against more experienced riders, mainly because the book is not as detailed as I felt was necessary, although a later battle with Northerners is rendered with more specific imagery. In addition to kelar, another element of fantasy is that Northerners are not considered human, or at least not completely human, and many of the beasts they ride are not horses. It's a short novel, and so is the second book, which is apparently a prequel, not a sequel, but it seems we will learn more about the Northerners. I did not like this as much as I did the Folktales, mainly because it was too predictable, but it might have been better if written for a more mature audience. It wasn't a waste of time though, so I'll give it a reserved recommendation, and I look forward to The Hero and the Crown next month, as well as other novels throughout the year. There is also a collection that includes several stories set in Damar, so that might be my selection for July.
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