Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer

Life couldn’t be more boring for Jack. He helps his father, Giles Crookleg, tend to the farm, wishing his hard work and dedication would be acknowledged, all while listening to his father’s never ending sing-song for his younger sister, Lucy, lost princess of a faraway land.

Right. Jack works his tail off for nary a thank you, while Lucy does exactly the opposite of what father asks with no consequences. Jack’s fortunes turn when the local Bard asks Jack to be his apprentice. After initially refusing, Giles Crookleg grudgingly agrees, encouraged by the Bard’s promise that Jack will have no fun, that he will “work like a donkey in a lead mine,” and that other village boys will come to aid with the farm.

Jack learns from the Bard to see the world differently, the beginning of his study of the life force, and the ability to call upon it for magic. His studies are unfortunately cut short by the attacks of vicious Northmen – Vikings – who kidnap him and Lucy. Jack is to be sold as a thrall (slave) and Lucy is to be a gift for Queen Frith, a half-troll, from Thorgil, a shield maiden seeking the queen’s approval.

Olaf One-Brow, the leader of this band of Northmen, decides to keep Jack as his own when he learns of Jack’s bard training. His own personal skald, a bard to create songs praising his abilities, ensuring his fame will never die.

Eventually, Olaf and his crew, Thorgil the shield maiden, Jack, and the crow Bold Heart are sent on a quest to drink from Mimir’s Well. Drinking the song-mead from the well is the only thing that will help Jack save Lucy. They travel to Jotunheim, land of the trolls, and face giant spiders, dragons, a troll-bear, and a deadly, frozen landscape. Oh yeah. And trolls.

I was astounded at how many times the actions of Olaf One-Brow and his band of berserkers disgusted me, only to find myself liking Olaf, sometimes even feeling sympathetic toward him, and sometimes even in the very next chapter. Then, when once again reminded of Olaf’s true nature, I found myself surprised! At least I shared these feelings with Jack, who, despite his growing abilities as a bard, hasn’t completely grown accustomed to this way of life, seemingly the opposite of that on his sheltered family farm.

Nancy Farmer has created an entire new world, complete with history and politics, all based on real history and legend. In fact, three pages of sources are listed about Norse myths, legends, and history. Readers will be quickly drawn into this historical fantasy world inhabited by characters with names like Ivar the Boneless, Gizur Thumb-Crusher, Einar the Ear-Hoarder, and Sven the Vengeful and creatures like jotuns (trolls), monstors, and various unclassifiables like half-ogres and shapeshifters.

I've had fourth graders read The Sea of Trolls with success, albeit strong readers, and know young adult readers eagerly antipating the release of The Islands of the Blessed, the conclusion of the trilogy. The Sea of Trolls is a remarkable book, with a wide interest level, that should be recommended to fans of the Inheritance Trilogy, the Percy Jackson series, the Wingfeather Saga, and The Lord of the Rings or readers ready to move on from series like the Spiderwick Chronicles and The Chronicles of Narnia.

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