Next up: “The Blue Sword” by Robin McKinley
First of the books in McKinley’s Damar world.
Angharad, called Harry, is moving to the Royal Province of Daria, called Damar by the natives, after the death of her father. Her brother Richard serves at the military outpost in Istan, and has secured a place for her to live in the residence of Sir Charles, the District Commissioner, and his wife. Daria is far from the Homeland, and very different, but though she feels somewhat adrift, Harry finds her new home beautiful and interesting. Soon after her arrival, the king of the native hill-folk comes to meet with Sir Charles, to warn the Homelanders of an impending invasion of demonic Northerners. The meeting doesn’t go well, but it does result in the brief meeting of Harry and King Corlath.
The royalty of the hill-folk possess a curious magic called kelar, that can bestow abilities unto those of the bloodline. One of the abilities it can give is prescience; and Corlath’s kelar tells him he must bring Harry with him when he returns to the hills, for Harry’s fate lies with the Hills, and the Hills’ with her.
I really love this book. I felt a certain kinship with Harry growing up, and still rather do, to be honest. She’s a little awkward, doesn’t feel as if she quite fits into society as it is. Going to Daria/Damar changes this a little, as some part of herself embraces the new land and new people intrinsically. But the true turning point in her life is when she is taken by the hill-folk. She really grows into herself and her heritage then. I liked her, and the characters around her. Corlath is a very interesting character, and I also really liked Harry’s brother and Colonel Dedham.
Damar and its people are so wonderful and interesting in this book. The horses, the legend of the once-powerful kingdom, hints of magic… It’s great. Some of Damar’s history is presented in the book (though not really deeply delved into) and it adds such nuance to everything. I would love to see more books about Damar. Right now, it’s only this book, “The Hero and the Crown”, and one (or two?) short stories.
The one point of contention with this book is the partly sugar-coated depiction of colonialism. The Homeland is very obviously England, and Daria/Damar are a sort of amalgam of a fantasy kingdom in decline and India. While Harry is a Homelander who finds her destiny in saving Damar– a trope that generally takes power from minorities and gives it to the ‘savior’ white race– this is partially subverted by the fact that Harry is part Damarian, and it is by this fact alone that she is able to do what she can do. Similarly, while the Homelanders have colonized Damar, renaming it Daria, there is a curious effect (inherent magic in the land?) by which only certain Homelanders are ‘allowed’ to stay. Some Homelanders ‘inexplicably’ (it is later hinted at, rather unsubtly I thought, that they all possess Damarian heritage) embrace life in Damar whole-heartedly, while others (the entirely un-Damarian) never feel quite right and always end up returning back to the Homeland in the end. Damar keeps its own.
As with all of McKinley’s books, the writing is simple, but nuanced. It is narrative-heavy, like old fairy tales. It has an interesting effect of feeling dream-like but also compelling.