A Tunnel in the Sky

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The Damar Series
by Robin McKinley

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted May 25, 2023
Edits and Addendum on June 4

The Blue Sword / 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 Meedthar, 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, and 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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Posted June 4, 2023
I almost stopped reading several times through the first half of this book. Then it got more interesting, and by the end I was very glad I persisted. Most sites around the net list The Hero and the Crown as Damar #2, and of course it was published after The Blue Sword, but it is a prequel, so maybe it should be #1 instead, or at least #.5. The main character is Aerin, daughter of the Damarian King Arlbeth, her mother being the King's second wife. She is the red-haired warrior woman that Harry Crewe saw in her vision the first time she drank the Meedthar. Aerin tries her best to remain hidden within the City's castle, since most of the people fear her, as they had feared her mother, who was a Northerner, suspected of being a witch. Thus Aerin was frequently referred to as the witchwoman's daughter, and there was little chance she would be allowed to be Queen after her father's death. What I didn't like about the first part of the book was the repetition of that theme, as well as a rivalry between Aerin, the first sol (princess), and Golanna, one of her cousins, the second sol. Golanna teased Aerin into consuming some of the surka plant, which in the proper dosage might aid a person in controlling the Gift of kelar, which Aerin had yet to exhibit. Too much, though, could result in severe illness, even death. It was severe illness for Aerin, and during her recuperation she began reading volumes of history from her father's library. One book had a formula for a concoction that, when spread on the skin, would protect a person from the fire of dragons.

I'm not sure how many years or generations separate the two novels. In Aerin's time the City held a large population, but by Corlath and Harry Crewe's time it had dwindled to very few, with the only time more were in the City was for the laprun trials. I can't recall mention of dragons in the first book, other than in the legends passed down about Aerin, but they were still around in her time, even though most were small. The book she read had been damaged, with the formula for kenet incomplete. Her lady-in-waiting was somewhat knowledgeable about herbs, so with Teka's help, and several (what she thought were surreptitious) visits to various apothecaries in the City, she continued to experiment until she perfected a formula for kenet. At the same time, another of her activities, which she thought was secret from her father, was the rehabilitaion of his retired warhorse, Talat, whom the king could not bear to put out of its misery. One result of her riding Talat was exchanging the standard tack with something of her own invention. Thus Aerin was responsible for the later tradition of riding with a simple saddle, no bridle or reins, no stirrups. Word comes from a nearby village of a dragon attack, but before the king's guard could mount a response, Aerin sneaks away and takes care of the dragon herself. This happens several more times, with villagers requesting Aerin be sent to face the dragons. One time it was a full family, male, female, and four kits. Something else going on at this time was a provincial leader threatening secession, with rumors they were also aligning with Northeners. King Arlbeth and his guard travel to parlay with Nyrlol, then shortly after their departure, word comes to the City of the return of the legendary Maur, a dragon supposedly as big as a mountain. Aerin is sure that is an exaggeration, and rides off to confront it.

From this point on the book is much more exciting, with the first exemplary scene being Aerin's battle with Maur. Against all odds, Aerin is able to kill Maur, but in doing so is severely injured herself. She's not sure how long she lay there, how long it took her to drag herself over to a nearby stream, to drink, but also to lay in the water to soothe her injuries and burns. Talat was injured too, but also recovers, and Aerin is finally able to mount him and slowly they go back to the City. Along the way she meets the King in a rush to get back to the City, since he suspected Nyrlol's summons was a diversion to leave the City vulnerable. I am sure Arlbeth was proud of Aerin, but he was also very upset that she continued to keep her plans and activities secret. During her recovery, she begins having dreams and visions of a man calling her to come to him, and she thinks she knows where to go. Defying her father's orders again, she sneaks out of the castle, and she and Talat journey west and north, eventually meeting Luthe, who just happens to have been a character in the first book, many years later. He is at least semi-immortal, or not even mortal, depending on your definition of each. After almost a year, Aerin leaves him to search for the lost Hero's Crown, without which legends say Damar would always be vulnerable. One complaint I had with the first book was too many sections were not sufficiently explored, not enough detail about the history of Damar and why Harry proved to be so important. This book is almost the exact same length, but those complaints do not apply. We learn of Aerin's mother's history, of how Luthe trained with Agsded, Aerin's uncle, of how Luthe and Agsded quarreled, eventually going their separate ways. Agsded may have been a more powerful mystic than Luthe, but Aerin proved to be even more powerful, wresting the Hero's Crown from him, and returning to the City just in time to help defeat the invading Northerners.

In spite of the slow start, I recommend The Hero and the Crown, which was a Newberry Award winner, as well as finalist for Locus and Mythopoeic awards.

I know I'm not a good reviewer, mostly synopsis instead of analysis. You may think I revealed too much, but there is much I've left out, or just barely touched the surface. Most of that is Aerin's internal thoughts, her doubts about herself and her worth to Damar. Every step was her trying to prove herself, while at the same time keeping her activities secret, since she is sure if she reveals any of her intentions she will be more severely reprimanded, more closely guarded. What she seemed to have been oblivious to was how easy she was always able to get out of the castle, to train and ride Talat, to search apothecaries for needed herbs, to go out and fight dragons. Yes, her father might have tried to control her more, but only because he wanted her to be safe, to be properly trained so that she could be Queen after him. Her secretive nature played into the notion she was a witch who could not be trusted. Which was completely oppostite of the truth. Part of her heritage was from the North (and the same could be said of Harry Crewe), but she was completely loyal to Damar. Everything she did was to defend it. Without her Damar would have fallen. She does become Queen, but only after the new King, Tor, marries her after his crowning. I would welcome another book or two connecting the Damar of Aerin's time with that of Harry and Corlath's. There have been a few short stories, but I'm not sure which characters they are about. I'll read a couple of them next month in one collection, and if possible I'll try to track down two others, each in separate anthologies. Not sure if I'll add comments about them to this page or create another. I'll decide after reading.


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Robin McKinley

1982 & '84

Both novels were finalists for Locus and Mythopoeic Awards

Blue Sword was a Newberry Honor Book, with Hero and Crown a Newberry winner.

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Blue Sword
Hero and Crown

Blue Sword
Hero and Crown

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