The Blue Sword

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

My copy of The Blue Sword was used to begin with. It's gained some creases along its spine along with a bit of scuffing since I bought it, but this book has been such a treasure that I take special care to avoid creases anywhere else. So, even though I read it once or twice a year, it's still in great shape.

I picked it up along with its prequel, The Hero and the Crown, at a used book store. I'd never heard of Robin McKinley, but the woman on horseback wielding a blue magic sword captured my attention. It's not a fancy cover. The background is simply a wash of sandy yellow fading up into muted teal. But it promised magic.

It delivered so much more.

Harry Crewe is a bit of an eccentric. For one thing, she refuses to go by her given name of Angharad, much to her brother Richard's dismay. She is also too restless to be a proper lady of Homeland society, though she tries her best for her brother's sake. She knows he loves her, but it isn't easy to be the penniless younger sister, dependent on him after their father dies.

Though they are of no relation, Sir Charles and Lady Amelia have taken her into their home. Kind as they are to the impoverished young woman, Harry is still restless. This province of Her Majesty's empire is stirring up strange feelings within her. The mountains on the far side of the desert call to her. Most other Homelanders are eager to finish their terms of service so they can leave this sandy place. But somehow, she loves it.

Though the Outlanders have been trying to annex the rest of Daria where the free Hillfolk live, when they face war with the Northerners, it is better to attempt an alliance. At least the Outlanders are still entirely human, and the Northerners will go after them as well. Corlath's kelar, a magic of the blood that few have anymore, told him to try. But when he and his Riders approach them with warnings and ask for aid, the Outlanders insist they will only provide assistance if he will subject himself and his people to their authority.

Corlath leaves the meeting held at Sir Charles's home in a rage. As the Hillfolk king, he is determined to maintain his people's identity. Before he can depart, his gaze lands on Harry by accident. Their eyes meet, and his kelar stirs. After their departure, Corlath's kelar keeps sending him visions of the girl with yellow hair. Though he doesn't understand the significance, he makes the decision to go back and steal her away. Somehow, she must be important for his people's survival.

Thus, Harry finds herself among the Hillfolk. She wonders why the king would want to kidnap a penniless orphan of no military importance. Only one reason comes to mind, but he treats her with dignity and makes no attempt to force himself on her. Rather, he acts as though she is an unexpected dilemma. Even the other Hillfolk within the traveling camp treat her as an honored guest rather than dishonored captive. One of the king's Riders befriends her and teaches her their language. Each word learned seems to awaken more, as though she had always known the language and was now recalling it.

How can a place she's never known feel so familiar? Why was she brought here? Why would they give her one of their remarkable horses and teach her their style of riding? Why teach her how to wield a sword? And why do they look to her as their token of hope? Harry must learn to bridge two worlds in order to save them both from the encroaching demon army of the North led by Thurra, a half-demonic creature who bears a strong kelar of his own.

I've often contemplated attempting to turn this Newbery Honor book into a screenplay. I know nothing of writing one, but I think this would make a fabulous movie. With the current rise in fantasy's popularity, it might even do well. Celine Dion's "Because You Loved Me" would make the perfect song for the closing credits. The lyrics fit well with the relationship between Harry and Corlath and some things that happen near the end of the book. It's not a perfect fit, since it wasn't written for the story, but it is amazingly close. I can't listen to the song without imagining Harry singing it to Corlath.

Because of The Blue Sword, I have gone on to read many of Robin McKinley's other wonderful fantasy novels. She has not one, but two variations on Beauty and the Beast and a re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty. Check out her website for more about this wonderful author and her books. You might want to read her hilariously long answer to "What do you do with your spare time? Do you have any hobbies?" She starts off with a warning that not only does she do too much, but she loves to talk about what she does. Trade off some topics of interest, and this how I sound when I start babbling about my passions. (Filk anyone?)

Roles and Revelations

Thursday, March 18, 2010

This isn't one of my usual posts. But I was inspired by this post from Lydia Sharp. She reflected on having tried out acting in high school. I kind of wish I had tried acting in high school. I was another one of those very shy types. In college, I discovered live action roleplaying which is a lot like improvisational theater, where the world is the stage and everyone is an actor. The game I participated in was medieval fantasy themed.

My first character was a gypsy healer. It was liberating to try the role of lighthearted flirt. I did more listening/watching than speaking/acting at first, not really knowing what to say most of the time. But I could experiment with personality traits, because it was just a game, just a character, not me. It was safe.

I got to try other roles as well working for the plot team. I've been a dark dwarf looking for a husband, a farm woman seeking adventurers to rescue her husband, a goblin woman wanting to buy pie, a giant ant, a wolf, even a magical tree. Just to name a few.

But I will say, in that game, I also had the WORST case of stage fright I have ever had. Took me by surprise. And having been in marching band and concert band during high school (and jazz and pep band), I've been through many performances.

The king of Stonegate had been recently been rescued from the Dark Horde and was having a festival to honor the thirteen adventurers who'd saved him. I was playing an elven bard (my second character creation). Count Silvertree, played by one of my friends, commissioned a song from my character for the commemoration and kept it secret from the guy playing the king, one of the chapter owners. One of my friends helped me write it out of game. I thought I was all set. An easy song to sing and an audience of people who weren't going to care if it was perfect, just there to have fun and enjoy what happened.

I nearly froze.

There I was surrounded by all those people, most of whom I knew, but still, I was completely encircled. The king sat in front of me only a few feet away. My hands shook, and my heart raced. I was no longer me. I was that bard, facing her king with a song. A huge honor. Somehow I managed to sing, even provided my own drum beat. He was genuinely touched. Shaky as my performance had been, and without having anything close to a professional voice, I brought him nearly to tears. For real. That stunned me as much as the stage fright had.

If I can make a reader believe in my characters as much as I managed that day to make everyone, including myself, believe that I was a bard, then I will be a happy writer.

Princess Bride

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

One of my favorite movies has to be The Princess Bride. This movie will always be a classic to me. I've watched it so many times, I can practically quote the whole thing right along with the actors. Not only do I have the movie, but I also have the soundtrack, which is excellent background music for writing fantasy. Fantastic!

This story within a story begins with a boy who is home sick. His grandfather visits, bringing his favorite book. With the promise of "fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles," the grandson agrees to listen to the story.

Buttercup falls in love with a poor farmboy. Before he leaves to seek his fortune, he promises that he will always come for her. "Because this is true love. Do you think this happens everyday?" When she hears he has been murdered by the Dread Pirate Roberts, she is devastated. Prince Humperdink chooses her to become his princess though she does not love him. Then she is kidnapped by a trio of odd characters and followed by the Man in Black.

Swordfights, vows, and hilarity ensues. I hope this movie remains a part of popular culture for a long time. With so many quotable lines and references which have slipped into common parlance, I find it "inconceivable" to imagine this story ever being forgotten completely.

Sword and Sorceress XVI

Friday, March 5, 2010

Here's another collection of short stories I found entertaining: Sword and Sorceress XVI, edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley. The Sword and Sorceress series of anthologies features fantasy stories of fighters and spellcasters, as you might expect from the title. Catchy, isn't it?

This volume features stories from authors with many publishing credits in their hats, such as Diana Paxton, Deborah Wheeler, Elisabeth Waters, and Michael Spence, to those at the beginning of their published career, such as Charlotte Carlson and Gail Sosinsky Wickman.

With twenty-six stories here, I won't even begin to try to sum up each one. I will recommend that you check out this volume of fabulous writing. From a unique spin on the frog prince story to a woman tired of waiting for her husband to pass his Senior Ordeal which would permit them to move out of the married student housing (Salt and Sorcery) to a drudge-turned princess by royal decree to feed a loathsome beast (The Day They Ran Out of Princesses), there are many well-spun yarns waiting for your perusal.

Some tales lean on the humor side like "The Frog Prince," while others lean on the spooky side like "The Changing Room." Some play on folklore like "The Kappa's Gift" and "Honey From the Rock." Whatever your taste, you may find something to your liking. Personally, while I enjoyed some more than others, I thought they were all well chosen. This is a collection I wouldn't mind adding to my shelves. The hunt to find a copy will be worth the effort.

Enchantress From the Stars

Monday, March 1, 2010

Sorry for the long break in posting. Between the toothache, car problems, and finally getting past the stumbling block in my story, I haven't been on blogger much at all in the past couple weeks.

So far this blog has weighed rather heavily on the fantasy side of the spec fic. It shouldn't be too surprising since that is what I read the most. But I do enjoy a good sci-fi story from time to time. Right before I dropped out of sight, I made it to our newly renovated library, making sure to pick up some sci-fi to cover here on the blog. Here is one I've read before and need to add to my personal library: Enchantress From the Stars by Sylvia Louise Engdahl.

This story has one of the more unusual point of view setups I've come across: first person and third person. It is primarily told from the perspective of a young woman after the story has taken place in reflective first person. She is retelling the events to a cousin who had asked about the Service, in order to help the person to decide whether to join the Academy. It is also to help put her thoughts and memories in order before writing her official report, which must include the perspectives of the two cultures encountered in the mission.

Since Elana is the one telling the story, it feels natural for her to write about the events from the two men in third person. The switching back and forth work rather well to convey different interpretations of the same events. One person's magic is another person's science. Maybe it is all magic in the end.

In the much advanced age of Elana's world, society has progressed beyond war and suffering. However, not all of the worlds in existence have achieved that level of advancement. Agents of the Anthropological Service work to keep Youngling societies from overwhelming less advanced Youngling societies without revealing themselves. Disclosure would cause great harm to developing cultures. They have a right to grow into their own place in the universe, to realize their own potential. And who knows, that uniqueness might offer some new insight to the Federation. Something that could only have come from being allowed to learn from their own mistakes.

Mistakes happen every step of the way for Elana. To begin with, she was never supposed to have been on Andrecia at all. She was supposed to be studying for her First Phase exams to make up for the time missed at the Academy in order to go to the family gathering. You took the Oath once you completed Third Phase. But Elana thought that the mission to somehow stop one Youngling world from taking over another sounded exciting. She thought of the Younglings as exotic beings, rather than people. Danger was an abstract. So, she hid on the landing craft containing her father, her fiance, and a female agent who resembled the native women.

After Ilura is vaporized by a surprise encounter with two of the invading Younglings, dying in order to prevent disclosure, the danger becomes real. And that is only the beginning. Instead of Ilura doing "magic" to scare off the invaders, who believe in only what their science can measure, Elana's father must use his own daughter in a crucial role of an improvised plan. She doesn't have the features to pass as a native, so she must somehow work through a native to achieve the same result.

To Georyn and his brothers, she is the Enchantress, able to do wondrous magic. She sets them tasks that will help them prepare for their quest to slay the "dragon." Georyn does far better than they expected. The trials unlock innate abilities and ready him for the fearsome sights and sensations he will have once he faces the invaders.

Jarel is a doctor in the Youngling Empire sent down with the fledgling colony and pacification team. The Empire sees the natives as ignorant savages, little better than animals. Jarel feels differently. He wonders if there might be something more to them and questions the decision to occupy an inhabited planet. His values are put to the test. He will have to make a stand on whether his people belong there and who he should aid.

Elana comes to some rude awakenings about what it means to be in the Service and to see suffering and not interfere. It takes every ounce of willpower and ingenuity from the agents, courage from Georyn, cooperation from Jarel, and a heartful of faith from everyone to make the plan succeed.

I found this to be a fascinating glimpse into how space faring societies might develop and what they would do once out in the stars. Maybe some great Federation out there is allowing us to make our mistakes, to grow into our own potential. Even if it means allowing our suffering to continue. After all, suffering is what propels us to improve our lives. It comforts me to think there might be such a Federation out there, studying us, waiting for us to grow up, and allowing us the chance to do so.