About thirteen years ago, I got several books for Christmas. For some people this may have been anticlimactic. At the time I was a little cautious, myself, though I was a thorough bookworm and would soon bless this pile of books.

I was living in countryside Japan, and all the English books I had access to in the world were in our house.

I was cautious about some of the books because my mom had not read them yet, and the covers were a little…hmmm.

I have all sorts of ways to name it now, but I won’t. Because of course, now this is the only true cover–it’s been with me ever since.

I  had already met Robin McKinley through Beauty. In fact, our week in the hotel after our international move I read it aloud to my brother, as an aggressive comfort tactic. This book was revelatory to me–it showed how a fairy tale could be a skeleton for a deeper novel, how fantasy could be built out of older stories.

The Blue Sword, though, was a story that I resonated with very personally.

In it, our heroine Harry has moved from her homeland to a colonial outpost. She’s always felt like an outsider (from a slight lack of pedigree and fortune: much worse, being tall and not pretty). In this nucleus of outsiders in a strange land she makes friends in a deeper way quite quickly.

Soon after the start of the book, she’s taken hostage–or rather, taken away to become a warrior. Her own untapped magic blooms in the strange culture she’s immersed in–and even helps her learn language more rapidly than could be expected.

Harry was living out a fantasy story–as bi-cultural. Though older than the technical definition of the Third Culture Kid, she very much was living out that experience of being an ex-pat and submersed in a culture that begins to color the very person you are.

Robin McKinley was a military brat, even stopping in Japan (where she read Lord of the Rings for the first time), so she was writing from an experience I resonated with, in this story. Man, did I know how amazing it would be to just subconsciously start picking up Japanese–though after a while, it felt a little like that, to be absorbing it from all around me. A uniquely cross-cultural wish fulfillment element!

But it wasn’t an escapist story, all wish-fulfillment with magic.

In one of the passages, Harry first feels comforted by the very insider-ness of the group she sits with–their strong bonds. But just moments later it isolates her:

The feeling she had had earlier, before she had tasted the Water of Seeing, that the closeness among the king and his men in some way supported her, was gone; she felt lost and miserably alone, and she decided that when there were eighteen people pretending you didn’t exist in a small enclosed area, it was worse than two people pretending you didn’t exist outside under the sky.

How well I understood (and still understand) that feeling! And even as she earns her status as belonging with them, as having a destiny there, because of being born and raised elsewhere she’ll never BE them.

I’m missing what I don’t have, she thought late one night, squirming on her cushions. It’s nothing to do with what I should be homesick for–Jack would understand, the oldest colonel still active, looking across the desert at the Hills. It’s that I don’t belong here. It doesn’t matter that I’m getting burned as dark as they are, that I can sit a horse all day and not complain. It doesn’t matter that their Water of Sight works in me as i does in only a few of their own. It is only astonishing that it would work in one not of the Hills; it does not make that one any more of the Hills than she was before.


There was a certain bitter humor to lying awake wishing for something one cannot have, after lying awake not so long ago wishing for the opposite thing that one had just lost. Not a very useful sort of adaptability, this, she thought. But, her though added despairingly, what kind of adaptability–or genius–would be useful to me? …There was, too, a reality to her new life that her old life had lacked, and she realized with a shock that she had never truly loved or hated, for she had never seen the world she had been used to living in closely enough for it to evoke passion in her. This world was already more vivid to her, exhilaratingly, terrifyingly more vivid, than the sweet green country, affectionately but indistinctly recalled, of her former life.

While I didn’t discover I was born with magic or anything, this transformation Harry goes through mirrors the new awareness of being surrounded by a new world. My memory became much less episodic after our first big move when I was 9. Moving to Japan shook up even more of my ability to take things for granted–from mundane things like packaging to flora on your doorstep.

I have been thinking lately about the books that have the narratives of bi-culturals and TCK (Third Culture Kids), inspired by the notes of that in The Goblin Emperor. I’ll be reviewing that element of that book next!