These two books take place in the same world, although The Hero and the Crown is set many generations earlier. I can see reading either book first, honestly. I read them in published ordered (my default), and when I was reading The Hero and the Crown, it kind of gave me some The Magician’s Nephew kind of vibes – like yes, you get something out of it reading this one first, but to really understand the depth, you have to have read the chronologically later books before reading this one, if that makes sense. (I hate it that the “official” order of Narnia now puts Nephew first. Utter nonsense. And don’t give me that line about Lewis wanting them to go in that order. He offhandedly mentioned it to one person, and now it’s 100% the way people are supposed to read them. Ridiculous. Nephew is so much more magical when you read it later in the series and actually understand what’s happening. Anyway.)
Anyway, anyway, back to this actual review. The Blue Sword focuses on Harry (female), recently orphaned, now traveling from “Homeland” (definite England vibe) to Damar (India/high desert vibe), where her only living relative, brother Richard, is serving as a soldier. He has made arrangements for Harry to stay with Sir Charles and his wife, and older couple (Sir Charles is some kind of diplomat). I never really understood why Harry wasn’t just allowed to stay at home, since she’s in her late teens and it seems like she should have been able to rustle up some kind of companion, but whatever. Harry arrives in Damar, an arid and rugged country, and tries to adjust to her new life.
A while back, Damar was invaded and taken over by the Homelanders, who enslaved, employed, and displaced the natives – the Hillfolk. Only a small part of Damar is not under Homelander rule, the northern desert. This border region is where Richard is posted and where Harry comes to live. Shortly after her arrival, and unheard of event occurs: the king of the Hillfolk comes to call. But when he asks for help resisting the impending invasion of the Northerners (who live over the mountains beyond the Hillfolk’s desert), the Homelanders put him off with various diplomatic phrases that basically refuse to help him, and the king and his entourage leave in a huff.
There are many strange stories about the Hillfolk, and some of those stories even sound… magical. Of course the prosaic Homelanders would never believe such tales, but…!!!
But the king’s visit accomplished one thing: when he saw Harry, he knew immediately that she had a role of importance to play for his people, even though he has no idea why or what it is.
Overall, this was a really enjoyable book. I liked Harry and the Hillfolk king (Corlath) very well, and I liked how their romance was very secondary to the more imminent issue of our country is being invaded by demons. (So often YA fantasy has a tendency to go off on long tangents where no one has any sense of urgency and plenty of time to lounge about snogging, which makes literally zero sense.) I liked how not everything came naturally to Harry, and that her training montage took longer than like two days. The world building was done very well, and I loved the culture of the Hillfolk.
However, the story did drag a bit in the middle, especially when they go to visit Luthe. The pacing just felt rather slow. Still, I liked the ending and felt like things came together well. While this wasn’t an instant classic for me, it was still an easy 3.5/5.
The Hero and the Crown is about Aerin, the daughter of the Damarian king many generations before the invasion of the Homelanders. There is some question about her mother’s heritage, so Aerin is somewhat the ugly duckling of the palace, as some people say that her mother was a witch who enchanted the king, etc. I actually liked this story a lot, but it felt like it was incredibly choppy in places. McKinley starts the story and goes a couple of chapters, then goes back a few years to give us some backstory for a couple of chapters, and then goes back a few more years for a couple of chapters to give us backstory to the backstory… and then jumps back to the original time and goes from there. In this instance, it would have made way more sense to start with the earlier time, because I honestly didn’t understand the seriousness of some of the initial conversations and events she described because I had no context for them. The way she wrote it left me feeling a little confused in places as to whether or not different events had happened yet or not in Aerin’s life.
Eventually, Aerin rides off to become a hero, and the pacing seemed odd there as well. She completely loses her sense of urgency while her country is being invaded by demons. At one point, she learns some really important information, that through one incredibly simple task could make everything so much better for her father and the people who are fighting back in the City… and she’s just like, “Oh, huh, interesting,” and we don’t hear anything else about it until chapters later. It seems like at that point I would have been like, “Whoa, that’s crazy. Let’s like send a messenger or something to make sure they know about this thing!”
I also didn’t really care for the sort-of love triangle, which left me feeling weird about her marrying the person she marries in the end.
Still, an overall enjoyable book and a 3/5 read.
I definitely enjoyed these stories, but they didn’t really become new favorites of mine like some of McKinley’s works have in the past – her writing is really hit or miss for me. I do recommend these if you enjoy fantasy stories, but they aren’t the most magical books I’ve read lately.