Monday, December 15, 2008

The Sea of Trolls: Children's lit with a viking spirit

This recent post over at Black Gate reminded me of how much good writing, past and present, has been done in the fantasy genre under the guise of young adult literature. Some classic series for children that I enjoyed back in the day (and still do) include Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence, The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander, and of course, C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia.

Nowadays J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials are at the forefront of the young adult fantasy field. I can't vouch for either of these series, since I haven't read Pullman's trilogy and have only dipped my toe in the water of the Potter books. But I will highly recommend another semi-recent entry in young adult fantasy: Nancy Farmer's The Sea of Trolls (2004).

Despite the good work being done in the genre I'll freely admit that the young adult tag had me a bit skeptical at first, but any hesitancies about reading The Sea of Trolls proved ill-founded. Indeed, for the viking-lover in me, Farmer's work gets a hearty thumbs-up. It just proves that good writing transcends age limits, which are largely artificial designations anyway. Good books are good books regardless of how they're categorized.

The Sea of Trolls certainly pushes the young adult envelope--although there's no sex and gore, it does contain quite a bit of violence, and plenty of suffering, fear, and loss. But I wouldn't hesistate recommending it for any young teen. Although I'm generally no fan of children as protagonists (they're usually portrayed as too adult-like, are granted with superhuman powers and/or surrounded by a halo of protection that makes them invulnerable, or are just plain annoying), Jack, the main character of The Sea of Trolls, was well-drawn and likeable.

Jack is a young, bright boy living on the Irish coast and is taken in by the powerful, reclusive Bard as a servant and understudy. But Jack and his sister Lucy are abducted in a viking raid led by the berserker Olaf One-Brow (yes, the tale bears more than a passing resemblance to Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea). Through his own pluck, good fortune, and magical training learned at the feet of Bard, Jack proves his worth and avoids being sold into slavery. He manages to befriend Olaf and become the berserker's personal skald, and even warms the heart of his icy daughter Thorgill.

But later Thorgill decides to give away Jack's sister Lucy, her thrall, as a gift to Ivar the Boneless and his half-troll wife Queen Frith. This begins an epic quest to the magic troll-lands of Jotunheim in which Jack has to rescue Lucy before she is sacrificed to the goddess Freya.

Farmer's book is a wonderful blend of action, myth, norse legends, viking raids, and magic, all wrapped up in a well-told, albeit lengthy, tale. At 480 pages, The Sea of Trolls is a hefty read, and I have to wonder how receptive young adults are to this book. As much as I love fantasy lit I know I would have balked at a novel that size as a kid. Then again, I'm consistently amazed at the success of the Harry Potter books, which, despite their telephone-book girth are devoured like candy by both adults and young kids, so what do I know?


Darla D said...

I just finished listening to the audio book version of this (you are right - it is a long one - I think it took me a couple weeks). I thoroughly enjoyed it, as I have everything of Nancy Farmer's that I've read so far. I'm glad you were willing to give YA a try despite your misgivings, and that you enjoyed it, too!

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Darla, thanks for stopping by.

I may have been predisposed to liking The Sea of Trolls (given my love of fantasy), but I was impressed by Farmer's writing style and storytelling ability as well. If there's anything else you'd recommend by her, let me know.

Darla D said...

There is a sequel to this one, but I haven't read it yet. I think my favorite of hers is The House of the Scorpion, which is a very gripping futuristic tale set in Mexico (but it's no longer Mexico). More SF than fantasy, so I'm not sure if you'd be interested, but great characters and an unforgettable story.

Brian Murphy said...

I may have to check out The House of the Scorpion (I do branch out from fantasy from time-to-time). But I had actually forgotten that The Sea of Trolls has a sequel. Thanks for the reminder!