Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Book Review: Sea of Trolls

We just finished Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer. This is not a new book – it was written in 2004 – but it sat on our bookshelf for a long while simply because I thought it might be a bit too mature for the twins. Now, having read it, I’m glad we waited. It was a bit mature – there were snippets of snatched children and strange women going mad and cruel warriors taking strange drugs to put them in a murderous mood. Slit throats. Torched villages. Spirits and strange creatures. Gave me goosebumps.

But in one of those strange and lovely coincidences, because this book sat overlong on our shelves, our Roman history work is just now wrapping up – and we’ll be moving onto the Vikings any minute now. The kids will have some touchstones this way, things like bards and berserkers. I like touchstones. They give the kids reminders from places they’ve been, things they’ve studied. Here, Ivar the Boneless. There, a blue-stained Druid. And over there, a troll, a raven.

What I noticed first about this book was that it was well written. Trust me, this is no small thing for an adult doing a morning read aloud, day after day. A poorly written book, while exciting for the kids, can be agony for the reader. I felt this way about The Mysterious Benedict Society: the kids loved it, I really struggled some days. Oh, don’t get me wrong – I liked it book well enough. It’s fun and clever and full of interesting twists and turns. But, and here I will lower my voice so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings, the sentences are choppy and there’s too much jerkiness. Some cheesy jargon. I’m not a big fan of jargon, me.

But Sea of Trolls is a thing of beauty. It really is. It’s layered and descriptive and haunting and thrilling and quite simply wonderful. Farmer has said that she studied Stephen King and Edgar Rice Burroughs, writers she admired, in order to get a sense of pace and story, but when I read this book I initially thought that she must have trained as a medievalist, because her ability to describe objects and events was so, well, medieval (think lots of descriptive adjectives). For example, here is a snippet of her retelling of Beowulf, as told by a character in the novel, the old Bard:

In the morning the warriors rode to the lonely mountains where the creatures of the night lived. Toads bleated melancholy cries from slime pits. Trees trailed twisted roots into swamp. Frozen water hung like fallen daggers over the gloomy cliffs. Beowulf blew his battle horn, and all manner of snakes and scaly beings came hissing out. Hrothgar and his warriors fought them with axe and arrows until they were all dead. But one creature remained.”

“Grendel’s mother,” whispered Jack.

“Did I tell you her name was Frothi? Or that she was a half-troll?

Are you excited yet? I sure was. So were the kids. It’s a very exciting story. There are stories where I think “get on with it already” but this wasn’t one of them. There were more than a couple of mornings when we read one extra chapter, or two extra chapters. Took me less than three weeks to read the entire book, and it's a hefty 450 pages long. And just now, when I was trolling through Google trying to find information about the author, I discovered that it’s actually the first in a trilogy. Very welcome news for FDPG and Dominic, when I told them. They wanted to dash right out and get them NOW.

Let’s get through The Graveyard Book first, kids. (another fabulous read, by the way)

I’ll leave you with this quote from Nancy Farmer herself. I like this quote. In these days when so many people I know complain about stories where the parents are absent or busy and the kids are left to battle through on their own, the kind of stories I grew up on and feel wildly attached to, it’s heartening to see a writer who feels the same way:

One of my main themes is self-reliance, the ability to compete against odds and to beat them. A lot of kids' books have somebody who learns to come to terms with some dreadful situation, and it's all about them continuing to suffer at the end of the book. I don't want to write 'victim' books. I want a triumph, a hero or a heroine, and that's what I write about.”

Couldn't agree more.

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