Jack is a young Saxon boy who lives on the coast of England, and his life is filled with typical farming chores: herding the sheep, helping his parents, watching Lucy, his spoiled little sister, and, occasionally, helping the bard who lives at the Roman villa. The village is in awe of the bard, an educated man who can tell amazing stories, do magic, and help protect the village. Jack is astounded when, of all youths in the village, the bard chooses him, Jack, to be his apprentice. Jack is pleased and impressed when he sees how deftly the bard handles his father's objections to the idea, and soon Jack is working harder than he ever has before in his life - and he is not a lazy boy - to learn all the amazing things the bard has to teach him.
But he doesn't have long to learn before something terrible happens. The village is attacked by Viking berserkers, and Jack and his little sister are kidnapped and enslaved, taken on a dragon-prowed ship across the sea, away from everything they've known. The berserkers are frightening to Jack and Lucy - they behave in hard, brutal ways, always fighting each other, and despising weakness in any form. Jack quickly realizes he must learn to understand them in order to survive - and keep his sister safe - but everything they do, everything they believe, is so strange and violent, and soon he will be sold as a slave, and his sister given to the half-troll wife of the berserkers' ruler, King Ivar the Boneless.
Jack's adventure is a marvellous coming-of-age story, a magnificent blend of epic fantasy and historical novel, full of mythological imagery and magic. The characters are complex and reflect the culture and beliefs of the time and place in a way that adds depth to the story. I loved that Jack is constantly having to reshuffle his preconceptions and beliefs as he witnesses the baffling contradictions of these people. At first they seem wicked and cruel and inherently evil. But how can the fearsome giant who captured them, Olaf Onebrow, be all evil if he can be so kind to little Lucy, whittling wooden animals for her to play with? Just as he thinks maybe Olaf isn't so bad, he sees him kill someone in cold blood.
This story is hard-hitting and does not shirk from portraying violence, and there is a lot at stake here. This world is a tough one, and bad things happen to good - and bad - people. Jack is not in a pleasant fantasy world, although he does seek to travel to a mythical kingdom in order to save his little sister. This is a hard place, a violent place, but also a place of great wonder and enchantment. Thorgil, the Vikings' shield maiden, is a wonderful character, full of rage and strength and an incredible stubbornness, who seems to embody the best and the worst of the berserkers. I listened to this story in audio format, as read by Gerard Doyle, and he did a wonderful job of bringing the story to life. It is lengthy, however - fourteen hours long - but it was so enthralling that I hardly noticed; I was sorry when it was over. I would recommend this to fans of historical fiction, mythology and epic fantasy, and to those who simply enjoy a gripping adventure tale. I am looking forward to reading the next volume in this evocative trilogy.
Books in the Sea of Trolls trilogy:
1. The Sea of Trolls
2. The Land of the Silver Apples
3. The Islands of the Blessed (forthcoming)
The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer; narrated by Gerard Doyle (Recorded Books, 2004)
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The Silver Key: "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."
Writing Slash, Raising Kids: "It's great. Good epic fantasy, with enough twists to keep you reading, and no real missteps in plot. There is humour, though despite book reviews comparing it to Terry Pratchett... no, not quite. It does, however, compare to Tamora Pierce, though the female character is a bit of a... well, she's different."