Review policy

I am very happy to review any novel that fits in with the theme of this blog: novels aimed at 9-14 year olds, preferably with a fantasy/ speculative world setting. However, I will make clear in the review that I was sent the book by the publisher and I will write my honest opinion. Please feel free to contact me via Twitter or Facebook, or fantasticreads at gmail dot com.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Norse Code

I love books with maps, don't you? My dad to me every night before I was 11, and I remember three map- filled readings: C.S. Lewis's Narnia books, Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons and sequels, and J.R.R. Tolkein's Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings series, with its fabulous maps of Middle Earth.

Image: fanpop.com
Just about the only thing that could improve Robin McKinley's amazing The Blue Sword would be a map of Damar, so the reader could follow Harry's journey with her.

By some kind of cultural serendipity, as the Guardian has pointed out, several Viking- inspired cultural events and book releases are happening, and I have recently read some amazing books inspired by Vikings, all of which involve journeys and have wonderful maps at the front.

Image: katherinelangrish.com

The very wonderful children of the Big Green Bookshop book club chose the final book in Katherine Langrish's Troll series (published both separately and in one volume as West Of The Moon), Troll Blood. Orphaned Peer Ulfsson has been taken in by his friend Hilde's family, after his adventures with trolls in the first two books has left him without a guardian or a home. One day a Viking ship arrives in the harbour, and the captain, Gunnar, his vain son Harald Silkenhair and Gunnar's strange wife Astrid come to Hilde's house. Hilde is desperate to accompany Astrid on the voyage, and Peer is desperate to be with Hilde, so they (and the house troll, the Nis- similar to a British Hob or Brownie) sail for Vinland. However, Gunnar is haunted by the man he has killed, Harald's temper is becoming more uncontrollable, and what is Astrid's secret?

Katherine Langrish draws on both Norse and Native American mythology to create a wonderful, exciting read. It helps to have read the first two books, but Peer and Hilde's characters develop further in this story, and the setting away from Trollsvik and Troll Fell mean that new readers and old fans of the series are on more of an even footing. It also has a glossary of Norse and Native American mythology and terms.The book club loved this book, and so did I.

Image: waterstones.com

I have recently discovered Kevin Crossley-Holland (I wrote about Arthur: The Seeing Stone here). This is the enthralling story of teenage Solveig, who in 1036 follows her father, the Viking mercenary Halfdan, who has travelled to Miklagard (Istanbul) to become one of the guards of Greek Empress Zoe. This is a time of transition for the Norse people, where the religion of the old Gods is being overtaken by Christianity, and this is one of the challenges that Solveig must face. Interestingly Kevin Crossley-Holland doesn't choose to disguise Solveig as a boy to avoid the inevitable dangers of a teenage girl travelling alone; Solveig must fend off unwelcome attentions; luckily she is protected by both the kindness of fellow travellers and her own intelligence (and as she pays her way by carving ornaments and jewellery, she has a sharp knife with her). Incidentally, The History Girls blog has a great series on crossdressing in historical fiction. I was totally involved in following Solveig's journey from Scandinavia through Russia to Istanbul, and every step of the way wondering whether she would arrive and how, when getting there, she would find her father. This is a magical book, just as good as the Arthur trilogy, and I can't wait to meet Solveig again in the sequel. Reading the story in the afterword of Kevin finding the rune Halfdan in the great church of Hagia Sophia is breathtaking as well.

Image: runemarks.co.uk
"Five hundred years after the End of the World, and the goblins had been at the cellar again..." is one of my favourite opening lines of books I have recently read. (My all-time favourites include "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day" and "I am writing this sitting in the kitchen sink"- if you know which books these come from, comment below, and add your own!) In the opening chapter of Runemarks by Joanne Harris, (best selling author of Chocolat and very entertaining tweeter) 14 year old Maddy is in a cellar. In her post- Ragnarok world (Ragnarok in Norse mythology meaning the end of the world, death of the Gods and rebirth of the world) dreaming, imagination and magic are suspect, mention of the Old Gods is forbidden and a new, puritanical religion, with knowledge confined to a select few, holds sway. Maddy has a mark in the shape of a rune on her hand; the people in her town call it a ruin-mark, a sign of being a witch. Then Maddy meets the traveller One-Eye, who teaches her to use her runemark to cast "glams", or spells. One-Eye, who is Odin much weakened by Ragnarok, involves Maddy in a quest which leads her to meet Loki and other Norse Gods, goblins and race against time to save the world from a second Ragnarok.

Where this books differs from the other in this post is that it is set in a fantasy world, albeit one that strongly resembles Yorkshire, and I enjoyed the incongruity of a Tolkeinesque fantasy without the High Fantasy "Forswear to be my foe, Magrin son of Bagrin" dialogue. Like the incomparable Terry Pratchett, Joanne Harris is able to make fantasy humorous without forgoing satisfying world-building and storytelling. Three great maps, a glossary and character list added to the enjoyment of this book for me.

 I was given AS Byatt's Ragnarok for my birthday, but unfortunately work pressure being what it is I haven't had time to finish it yet: more serendipitous Norse mythology reworking for me to enjoy.

I would recommend Troll Blood to 9+, Bracelet of Bones to 12+ and Runemarks to 11+.

It was the first anniversary of this blog on 12th November. Thanks for reading, and for all the encouragement fellow bloggers and commenters have given me.

2 comments:

  1. Just read this post Ali. I think Vikings are definitely hot stuff at the minute. A big title in Ireland at the minute is "Arthur Quinn and the World Serpent" by Alan Early. It follows Arthur's attempts to thwart Loki unleashing the Jormungand on the streets of Dublin.

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  2. That sounds *amazing*! Thank you for the tip, I'll look it out. I've just got Francesca Simon's The Sleeping Army, so may return to Vikings soon!

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