© Nancy Farmer, illustration © Tim O’Brien.
This is the third book I’ve read by Farmer, and all have been excellent. Each has been very different from the others, with the first, “The Ear, the Eye and the Arm” being science fiction, the second, “A Girl Named Disaster,” more of an adventure story in Africa. This one is a mix of high fantasy and history, taking place in the year 793 AD on the coasts of England and Norway (the historic part) and the fabled lands of Norse mythology (the fantasy part), though there’s some fantasy elements throughout. Jack is a boy growing up in a small village on England’s northeast coast among people who think very little of him, except for one: an old man they call The Bard, who arrived on their shore a few years previously in a small boat. The Bard is clever, learned, and possesses enough small magics to keep the villagers in awe of him, and they take care of him communally. As the book opens, The Bard takes Jack on as his apprentice, beginning to teach him about magic and ways of opening himself to greater knowledge of the real world and unseen ones.
Before Jack gets very far in his learning, the village is attacked by a band of berserker Northmen, in search of The Bard for their queen. It seems she wants him dead. The Bard has foreknowledge of the attack, and sends the villagers to safety, but is himself stricken down by the half-troll queen’s magic. While trying to help The Bard, Jack and his little sister Lucy are captured by the Northmen and carried away on their ship back to their own land, as slaves (or thralls, as they name it). Jack manages to gain some advantage by using the little he has learned about magic, and the Northmen’s leader, Olaf One-Brow, decides to make Jack his own personal Bard. Also on the ship is a fierce, angry girl named Thorgil who quickly becomes Jack’s enemy. Helping him is a crow called Bold Heart that Jack brings in and befriends with his magic.
When the ship returns home, Jack and Lucy find some comfort in Olaf’s home, where his three wives take charge of them, but that respite is short-lived. Olaf presents his new Bard before the King and Queen, and Jack accidentally throws a spell on the Queen that reveals her true, horrible troll form. To remove it, Jack, Bold Heart, Olaf and Thorgil must go on a perilous quest to the Jotunheim in the land of the Trolls, which is going to mean the sudden demise of at least one of them.
As you can see, this book is complex and eventful, a long story, but one that never flags. Jack’s early life is interesting itself, and when he’s taken by the Northmen, a whole new society and rich history is revealed. The characters are well-rounded and real, the story is exciting, and when it moves into the high fantasy realm of Jotunheim, it only ramps up the excitement. An excellent read, and one that stands on a level with the best fantasy. Highly recommended.