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Book Review: The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer (Viking invasions and quests!)

 Book Review: The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer (Viking invasions and quests!)

In my opinion you arent a total waste of time, says the towns visiting Bard to eleven-year-old Jack. Dont let that go to your head, boy. You could easily be a'partial waste of time. Howd you like to be my apprentice?

Theres nothing like a glowing appraisal from ones teacher to set one on the path to self-study and personal development, is there?

But back-handed praise is enough for Jack, who longs for something more from his mundane, bucolic lifestyle as a farmers son. Hes not alone in this, either. The others in his life give the impression of being more capable than their presently quiet lives would lead us to believe. Jacks mother is a practitioner of simple hearth magic, while his six-year-old sister Lucy is quite insistent that shes of royal blood. For all his moaning and grumbling, too, Jacks father also longs for something more of his life, although this is something that Jack only begins to see as he studies under the Bard:

Hed never appreciated Giles Crooklegs complaining meant no more than the mutterings of crows in a tree. It was a habit crows fell into when things werent going their way. Father, too, grumbled by way of easing the disappointment in his life. What mattered was how Father went on in spite of his unhappiness, to create this beautiful place.

This little epiphany is one of the first suggestions we get of the growth that Jack is about to undergo, and lets just say that theres a tremendous amount ahead. And not just for Jack, but for those around him. For Jacks quiet Saxon life is about to be interrupted by the invading Vikings (or Northmen, as theyre known in the book). Jack and his sister are kidnapped and whisked away by the Northman Olaf to be sold as slaves. But Jack and Lucy are passed in at auction. Lucky them. Olaf decides to take Jack on as his personal mini-bard, and hands Lucy over as a gift to King Ivar and his cranky half-troll wife Frith. Unfortunately, Jacks efforts to woo his new captor go slightly awry when his spoken word poem strips the hair from Frith, leaving her quite the chrome dome.

She is unimpressed. Lives are threatened. Bargains are made.

And so off they all head on an adventure to restore her lovely locks and thus ensure the continued existence of bratty Lucy. An adventure that involves trolls, giant spiders, Yggdrasil, and plenty of self-discovery. Not to mention a fairly captivating mix of darkness and levity. Take the discussion over the impending quest to Jotunheim:

It is perilous beyond belief to pass into Jotunheim, said King Ivar. I know. Ive been there.
And I as well, said Olaf.

I love that a place thats apparently impossible to return from alive has survivors galore reporting of its purgatorial nature. And who can resist a bunch of Vikings who exhort Jack to just say no to pillaging? But at the same time, the whimsy leads to the text feeling a little uneven.'The Sea of Trolls seems to waver between being YA and MG at times, and the humours in large part to blame. Lines like Friths'I wanted a fine ogre or goblin, but'no. Mother insisted I marry a puny human sit strangely and anachronistically against Farmers thoughtful examination of the intersection of different cultures, belief systems, and the complexity of human nature.

The book is set in 793 CE, a historically fairly unpleasant time for the English, being the beginning of more than a hundred years of Viking raids. This period is neatly alluded to by'Jacks smaller-scale contact with various groups and their ways of life. For example, Jack, himself from a religiously diverse background, finds himself arguing the value of life with monks from the Christian tradition: Hark at him! The child presumes to lecture his elders. Listen, boy. Long life is but a chance to commit more sins. The longer you live, the more Satan whispers in your ear. Your soul grows so heavy, it gets dragged down to Hell. Its better to die young, preferably right after baptism, and be taken into Heaven. Similarly, he finds himself struggling to understand the desire of the Vikings to die in battle so that they might enter Valhalla. Why does everyone want to die? he asks. Whats so bad about being alive?

Another notable snippet is this one:

When Odin wanted the lore that would make him leader of the gods, he had to pay for it with suffering. he was stabbed with a spear and hanged for nine days and nights on the tree Yggdrasil.
Thats just plain stupid, Jack said.
Your god was nailed to a cross. Its the same thing.
No, its not.

Quotes like these abound; Farmer manages to fit plenty of thematic rumination and mythological references into what is a pretty rollicking adventure. Better scholars of this period than I am will pick out resonances from Beowulf as well as from the historical record; although one element I found interesting was that the Jack and Jill nursery rhyme apparently arose from this era.

In addition to the spiritual and historical side of things, theres plenty more into which the reader can delve, including what appears to be a pre-Stockholm case of Stockholm SyndromeJacks relationship with his captor Olaf becomes almost loving. Take this:'For the first time he understood what drove these violent men. Their lives were short, but every moment burned with intensity. These men knew they were doomedit was brave and crazy and supremely stupid. But it was noble, too. And also this:'Lesser men. That meant he, Jack, was'greater. The giant didnt think of him as a slavethey were equals.

And yet. You knew that there was a yet, didnt you? Somehow I didnt quite connect with the book, as much as I dearly wanted to. Its a book that I felt like I should have loved, and which offers so many reasons to love it, but I never felt truly engaged by it. Jack and I were grudging travel buddies, and I was disappointed by the fact that the books female characters were largely, well, unbearable. The exception was Thorgill, who I would have loved to have seen as the books protagonist, given that shes the one that undergoes the most growth. The writing, too, never quite felt'there for me, either, and I felt as though the books target audience was never clearly defined.

Still, Im glad that I took the time to acquaint myself with Nancy Farmers work, and given the generally strong elements of this book suspect that Ill be picking up some more of her work at another point.'

'Rating: star Book Review: The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer (Viking invasions and quests!)star Book Review: The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer (Viking invasions and quests!)star Book Review: The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer (Viking invasions and quests!)blankstar Book Review: The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer (Viking invasions and quests!)blankstar Book Review: The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer (Viking invasions and quests!) (good)

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 Book Review: The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer (Viking invasions and quests!) Book Review: The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer (Viking invasions and quests!)