Robin McKinley's Damar novels, The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, are quite good fantasy novels that admirably mix coming-of-age stories with interesting world-building and an almost remote mythical quality. I recommend them for readers at young-adult level and up.
The Blue Sword comes first in publication order, and tells of a time when the country of Damar is but a shadow of what it once was, thanks in part to the colonization of the continent by Harry Crewe's country, known simply as Home. Harry is energetic, likes to feel useful, loves adventure novels, and is indifferent to embroidery; she is also an impoverished orphan recently taken in as a charity case by her brother's military commander. Harry finds very little outlet for her vague restlessness in her new home, a Homelander fort on the edge of a desert; this changes, however, when she is abducted by the King of Damar, Corlath.
Corlath had come to the fort seeking military assistance against the Northerners, ancient and newly-strengthened enemies of Damar from over the mountains. Leaving the meeting in anger, he is unpleasantly surprised to find his kelar, magical talent and intuition, prompting him to take Harry along. Once he does, he and Harry must discover her place in Damarian society—and its implications for Damar's fight for survival.
The Blue Sword is a well-crafted coming-of-age tale with solid, likeable characters and an interesting world. (However, if one is allergic to horses in one's fantasies, both books should probably be avoided.) Damar is a country with depth and substance, and the Homelanders' colonization efforts add an unusual element to its perils. Likewise, Harry's path includes, realistically, the difficulty of navigating between two cultures and loyalties. These themes are picked up in more detail in the prequel, The Hero and the Crown.
Set five hundred years before The Blue Sword, The Hero and the Crown tells how the legendary Lady Aerin Dragon-Killer and King Tor the Just got to be that way (though not all of the legends are true, in an example of how history and myth mutate events). This book also deals coming of age amid a crisis with the Northerners. However, The Hero and the Crown is noticeably darker and more mature than The Blue Sword: though Aerin and Harry are similar, Aerin's isolation and perils, both physical and emotional, are deeper and more sharply felt than anything Harry confronts. The book also has a more strongly mythic feel, which mixes oddly but well with the concrete details of dragon-killing and personal relationships. I think The Hero and the Crown is clearly a better book (the narrative structure of Part One alone is as an effective a story-telling device as anything in The Blue Sword), but which book one likes better will be a matter of personal taste. I recommend that people looking for interesting worlds peopled with strong characters try both.
%T The Blue Sword %A McKinley, Robin %C New York %D 1982 %G 0-441-06880-4 %I Ace %O paperback %P 248pp %T The Hero and the Crown %A McKinley, Robin %C London %D 1985 %G 0-7088-8164-5 %I Orbit %O paperback %P 246pp
[No, I don't know why I have a UK edition; I must have picked it up used somewhere.]
Copyright February 16, 2000 by Kate Nepveu. Originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written.