Harry Crewe is not exactly content with her futile life in the colony of Daria. She spends her time gazing out into the desert that borders their town, captivated by the shifting sands and blazing heat. But out of the desert rides the Damarian king, who discovers that Harry, though she is an Outlander, possesses the rare gift of the kelar, an ancient magic passed down through generations. He kidnaps Harry and brings her to his city, hoping that she will aid him in his fight against the demon armies of the North.
Robin McKinley's world-building is superb. There's a pleasant richness to her compelling descriptions of the Damarian hills and deserts, clothes and customs. She also presents an interesting contrast between the British-like Homelanders and the Arab-esque Damarians. Unlike many authors, she avoids the tired trope in which a restless Western protagonist finds out that the native race is more sophisticated than the colonists. Instead, she uses the contrast to show us how similar they really are.
But while the world-building is strong, the character-building feels underdeveloped. Harry Crewe, as a heroine, leaves something to be desired. For most of the book she is shuffled from one place to another without resisting. She is complacent about her kidnapping, goes through training without protest, doesn't question when she's enlisted in trials of combat, and is just generally compliant. Not that she's a complete doormat; she has her moments of conflict and clashes with the king. But for the most part she accepts what other people have planned for her, makes the best of it, and doesn't stand up for herself because she doesn't actually know what she wants. Her one climactic act of defiance, therefore, just seems a bit out of character (however sacrificial it may be.)
To be fair, perhaps it only stands out in a fantasy genre already suffocated with heroines whose only job is to defy everyone and everything. There are many positive things about Harry's character, but her bland acceptance of fate and the lack of conflict or struggle in her path make her less interesting than she could have been. A disappointing drawback to an otherwise good fantasy novel.
Review by Lauren Shearer
Lauren Shearer writes words for fun and profit. She also makes films, but everyone knows you can't make a profit doing that. Her other hobby is consistently volunteering way too much of her time. You can read more of her reviews here
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