I tend to read more science fiction than fantasy, but The Blue Sword is a good example of why I love fantasy too. There’s just a timelessness to a fantasy novel that science fiction can’t really lay claim to. Fiction about the future always has so much of the present embedded in it, but there’s nothing about The Blue Sword that lets you know it was written 30 years ago. The Hero and the Crown is the prequel to this book, but I think I’m glad I read them in internal chronological order rather than publication order.
In The Blue Sword a young woman named Harry who’s living the colonizer’s life in a land far from her home. She’s kidnapped and made a part of the Hillfolk who are trying to eke out an existence while being besieged by not-quite-human magical Northmen and her own people. She becomes the bearer of the titular sword and becomes a legend herself. There’s a sense of inevitability to the story (in a way that George RR Martin would destabilize at every turn if he were writing it) but it’s very beautifully done. It’s not Le Guin-level amazing, and I don’t think it’s as good as The Hero and the Crown, but Harry is a heroine that you can see being emulated in stuff like The Girl of Fire and Thorns and other more contemporary fantasy. I will gladly recommend it far and wide.
Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown is the second book I read for my SFF class week on Epic Fantasy. The thing about his book is how classic the plot is but how well-crafted.
Aerin is the daughter of a king and normally with royal blood she should be good at magic, but she isn’t. Her mother was the king’s second wife and a Northern Witchwoman at that, so Aerin is looked down on at court (not, thankfully by her family). She takes on another rejected member of court, Talat, the King’s former horse, who’d gone lame saving the king in a battle. Together they are kind of badass, but in a very low-key way.
One of the things I love is that she spends three years working in a shed on getting the proportions just right for a fire-proof ointment she’d found a recipe for in a mouldy old book. She doesn’t find the recipe, make it, and then go off slaying dragons; everything takes time.
That playing with time comes up most drastically at the end of the book where she climbs stairs for “an awfully long time” which is probably longer than you think.
Structurally the book builds through her different trials, from quitting hiding herself at court, to being the king’s dragon-killer, to being something far more and then returning to be queen. It’s wonderful and melancholy. There isn’t the sense of oh my isn’t life tough, because she’s just barrelling through making her own decisions and creating a life for herself.
This is what epic fantasy should be. I mean yes, there’s the call to adventure, Joseph Campbell stuff to it, and it’s about leaving home, cutting the apron-strings in the way so much of this genre is, but this is exquisitely well done. Highly recommended
My reading list for this Fantasy & Science Fiction course (I’ll update it with links to the reviews of the books as I read them):
- Anderson, M.T. (2002). Feed. Somerville, MA: Candlewick.
- Babbitt, Natalie (1987). Fantasy and the Classic Hero. School Library Journal 25-29.
- Balay, Anne (2010). Zilpha keatley Snyder’s The Truth About Stone Hollow and the Genre of Time-Slip Fantasy. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, (35) 2, 131-143.
- Black, Holly (2002). Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale. New York: Simon Pulse.
- Card, Orson Scott (1985). Ender’s Game. New York: Tor.
- Collins, Suzanne (2008). The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic Press.
- Cooper, Susan (1973). The Dark is Rising. New York: Atheneum.
- Farmer, Nancy (2002). The House of the Scorpion. New York: Atheneum.
- Farmer, Nancy (2004). The Sea of Trolls. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
- Gaiman, Neil (2008). The Graveyard Book. New York: HarperCollins.
- Goodman, Alison (2003). Singing the Dogstar Blues. New York: Viking.
- Heinlein, Robert (1977). Have Spacesuit Will Travel. New York: Ballantine. (originally published 1958).
- Jacques, Brian (1986). Redwall. New York: Philomel Books.
- Laetz, Brian & Joshua J. Johnston (2008). What is Fantasy? Philosophy and Literature, 32(1), 161-172.
- LeGuin, Ursula K. (1968). A Wizard of Earthsea. New York: Bantam Books.
- L’Engle, Madeleine (1962). A Wrinkle in Time. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
- Lowry, Lois (1993). Giver. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Lewis, C.S. (1994). The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. New York: HarperTrophy. (originally published 1950).
- McKinley, Robin (1984). The Hero and the Crown. New York: Greenwillow Books.
- Nodleman, Perry & Mavis Reimer. (2003). The Repertoire of Theory, The Pleasures of Children’s Literature (3rd ed.) (pp.218-250). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
- O’Brien, Robert C. (1975). Z for Zachariah. New York: Atheneum.
- Paolini, Christopher (2003). Eragon. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
- Pearson, Mary (2008). The Adoration of Jenna Fox. New York: Henry Holt.
- Pullman, Philip (1996). The Golden Compass. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
- Riordan, Rick (2005). The Lightning Thief. New York: Hyperion Books for Children.
- Rowling, J.K. (1998). Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books.
- Shan, Darren (2001). A Living Nightmare. Boston: Little Brown.
- Slade, Arthur (2009). The Hunchback Assignments. New York: Wendy Lamb Books.
- Sleator, William (1984). Interstellar Pig. New York: Dutton.
- Thompson, Deborah L. (2001). Deconstructing Harry: Casting a Critical Eye on the Witches and Wizards of Hogwarts. In S. Lehr (Ed.), Beauty Brains and Brawn: The Construction of Gender in Children’s Literature (pp.42-50). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
- Vande Velde, Vivian (1999). Never Trust a Dead Man. San Diego: Harcourt.
- Westerfeld, Scott (2009). Leviathan. New York: Simon Pulse.
There’s some stuff on there I’ve read before, but not for ages and ages. I remember Interstellar Pig so fondly, and the Graveyard Book is awesome. This is going to be a fun term.