YA recommendations with lists, pictures, and frequent parentheticals.
Spoiler Rating: Low
Most Honorable of Lizzys,
The challenge with these Drop What You're Doing You Must Read This Book letters is explaining what's great about the book without spoiling anything. Plot points and characters' secrets are obviously best left unmentioned--but I'm the type of reader who prefers to go into a new book completely blind. I look at the cover, I read the blurb on the back, maybe (maybe) check how many stars it has on Goodreads, and dive in. If something's not made clear on the cover or in the blurb, I don't want to know about it.
(This strategy has only failed me once, with Poison Study; for some reason I was under the impression that the man who turned out to be the young heroine's love interest was in his fifties or sixties--so when the romance subplot blossomed I was completely taken aback. Oops?)
So for the sake of not spoiling The Blue Sword, which I love almost more than life itself, this will be a post without excerpts.
This is the story of Corlath, golden-eyed king of the Free Hillfolk, son of the sons of the Lady Aerin.
And this is the story of Harry Crewe, the Homelander orphan girl who became Harimad-sol, King's Rider, and heir to the Blue Sword, Gonturan, that no woman had wielded since the Lady Aerin herself bore it into battle.
And this is the song of the kelar of the Hillfolk, the magic of the blood, the weaver of destinies...
What do I love about it?
I love the characters:
Harry (a young woman with a boy's name!), with her pride and her sense of detachment from society, her love of horses and books, and her vague itch for adventure; Corlath with his burden of kinghood and his desperation to protect his people; Mathin with his honor, Jack with his humor, Senay with her sword and unflinching loyalty.
I love the basis of the plot:
The isolated and numb protagonist tossed blind into a completely unfamiliar world, and struggling to find her footing.
I love the writing style:
Distant and numb at first, like Harry herself, but slowly thawing as Harry does. It's a layered and descriptive sort of style, full of commas and colons and semicolons and em-dashes, carefully manipulating the reader's reading experience. (Robin McKinley: the source of my own comma- and colon- and semicolon- and em-dash-heavy writing style.)
I love the conflicts:
As layered as the writing style, with as much internal conflict as external.
I love the horses:
McKinley knows horses. That's the key to my heart, right there.
I love the powerful women:
Harry is explicitly not beautiful; she's described as having a body and features too strong to be beautiful. This is a significant mark against her in the society she was born into (which is, by the way, roughly the equivalent of Victorian England). Fortunately, she finds herself in a society that measures a woman's worth by her actions, her abilities, her strengths, and her character. This is a society that raises its daughters to be strong. (And, if they want, to wield swords, of which I approve greatly.)
I love the diversity:
Not to be too specific, but there's a small-and-dark race in conflict with a tall-and-blond race, with the small-and-dark people being the good guys. Also, biracial couples, yes and thanks.
I don't think I can continue my list without drifting too far into spoiler territory.
Do I think everyone will love The Blue Sword?
No. As fantastic as I think the writing style is (it takes me many times longer to read TBS than a similarly-sized novel because I have to read so slowly, savoring it, rereading the best passages before moving on to the next paragraph), some people will find it off-putting, in large part because it's quite different from today's standard YA/new adult/adult fantasy style.
The current standard is one of intimacy with the protagonist (often in the form of first-person perspective, or third-person-limited). TBS is third-person-omniscient, with the narrator's focus shifting between characters even within a single paragraph. As a result, you don't feel so tightly bound to/bonded with the protagonist.
TBS also strongly favors action over dialogue. Rather than, for example, Harry looking at Corlath and remarking, "That is one angry-looking dude," or Corlath himself saying, "Guys, I feel like dealing out some serious death right now," the narrator describes a silent Corlath standing still within--towering over--a nervous wheel of men who don't dare approach him, then describes how Harry flinches away from him when he comes close to her.
Obviously, this is a triumph of Show, Don't Tell. But the result is twofold: (1) amazingly vivid descriptions of scenes, people, action, body language; (2) huge blocks of action/description with only a scattering of dialogue.
TBS has a mere fraction of the dialogue that's standard in today's YA/new adult/adult fantasy; the pace of the reading is therefore slower, and there's more of a distance between the reader and the characters. Readers who like fast-paced adventures might be frustrated by TBS's long, descriptive paragraphs. Readers who tend to skim anything that isn't dialogue will positively hate this book because they'll miss the majority of the character/plot development. This is not a book to be rushed or skimmed.
Is it flawless?
No. I mean, yes, I'm giving it a five-star rating, but there's no such thing as a flawless book. But to me, the flaws are insignificant compared to everything great this book has going on.
What raises this book from four and a half to five stars is how deeply it affected (and still affects) me; I can't describe how intensely I related to Harry when I first read this book, nor can I count how many times I've read it since then. TBS feels like me--the same way, maybe, your favorite song feels like it was composed for you, composed about you, and no matter how many times you listen to it you still experience that same rush of surprise and exhilaration and familiarity and rightness that you experienced the first time.
I suspect I sound pretty silly at this point, so let's stop before I really go off the deep end.
The take-away here is that this book owns me, and therefore I'm perhaps not the most objective of reviewers. Oh, well.