[3 May 2009]
Sometimes there’s just nothing like a dog-eared hand-me-down copy of a dusty science fiction story to spice up your leisure reading for a day or two. Seeing an ‘80s-era paperback in a friend’s hands recently I inquired about it and was told that it was a borrowed copy of one of another friend’s all-time favorite books. Naturally I got myself put on the next-in-line list.
The book is Robin McKinley’s 1982 The Blue Sword and it’s a classic coming of age story coupled with some pioneer rhetoric where the native ‘Hillfolk’ possess a bit of magic and a whole lot of amazing horsemanship, while outposts of barracks-inhabiting invaders attempt to hold the border with their inferior attitudes about property-ownership. Naturally these ‘Outlanders’ don’t believe in magic.
Harry is a young Outlander woman living at such an outpost, and after a run in with the king of the Hillfolk, come to parlay with her hosts, she finds herself uprooted and suddenly thrown into an adventure she has no control over. The same magic that protects the Hillfolk from discovery deep within their mountains has chosen Harry as an integral part of the fight that is to come between the Hillfolk, the Outlanders, and the inhuman Northerners who threaten all of them.
McKinley tells a great story, and it’s always fun to live vicariously through a character who turns out to have untapped strengths and also to be suspiciously quick to learn a foreign language as well as to master the art of fighting from horseback. Don’t we all wish we could do those things? Harry is supremely likable, however, and constantly questions her place in the coming fight. She has a role to play that none can foresee, and the fact that she is a foreigner in the Hillfolk’s midst complicates the part she finds she must play.
Consider asking a friend this week about any dusty classic favorites they keep tucked away in a corner bookshelf. Especially the ones you have never heard of. One hundred reviews over at Barnes & Noble give this book five stars, while almost three hundred at Amazon add up to a solid 4.5 stars out of five. It has been reissued every few years for almost three decades. If your friend is willing to entrust their treasured copy of a favorite story to you, you might find a new favorite yourself. Let me know if you find any gold mines.