Halli Sveinsson’s world has been shaped by heroes, but the time of heroes passed long ago. Still he yearns to be like his ancestor Svein, one of twelve legendary warriors who sacrificed their lives fighting off the Trows—a race of tunnel-dwelling, man-eating monsters who have not been seen since the slain heroes were buried with their swords. The cairns, or burial mounds, of these twelve mythical figures formed the beginning of a magical boundary that (so the legend says) confines the hungry Trows to the high moors outside the valley, so long as the people of the valley stay on their side of the line. As generation after generation of clan leaders have joined their forebears in the row of cairns, this protection—and the tabu against breaking it—has grown so strong that the valley doesn’t need heroes any more. Disputes are settled through negotiation. Crimes are punished by fines that transfer valuable land from one family to another. And characters like Halli, who itch for adventure and can only seem to find trouble instead—well, they seem to have been born too late.
Halli doesn’t look the part of a hero. Short, squat, swarthy, and none too handsome, he has little to look forward to but a lifetime of farming a swampy parcel of land as a tenant to his older brother Leif, heir to the House of Svein. Till then, he gets into enough scrapes, pulls enough pranks, and breaks enough rules to make some doubt he will get even that far in life. Halli’s nurse warns him that he is fated, like many of his forebears, to lead a short and violent life. And while her stories of the days of heroism have always fascinated him—hers and the stories of his uncle Brodir, another ne’er-do-well spare heir who never amounted to much—still, he can’t help wondering what else is out there in the world outside the valley. Influenced by a tough, free-thinking girl named Aud of House Arne, Halli begins to doubt whether the Trows even exist. Could the old legends be only a gimmick to keep people in line? Could the superstitious fear of trespassing beyond the cairns be just a spur to following the rules and staying where you belong? What if, like Halli and Aud, you don’t belong?
When Halli witnesses the cold-blooded murder of his beloved uncle, he gets a chance to learn more about his world. He sees a great deal of it during his lonely quest for vengeance. He learns that there are bigger and grander places than the House of Svein. He learns things about the way different clans spin the legends of the heroes to favor their own ancestors, things that plant doubt in his mind about all that he has learned. But when he faces the test of killing a man, he learns more about himself. On the run, pricked by guilt, pursued by the Hakonsson clan, protected by Aud, he finally reaches home only to become the spark of a political crisis that threatens to fracture the peace of the Valley. And then the Hakons come a-feuding, threatening the lives of everyone Halli cares about, even if they don’t care for him. Now he must put everything he thinks he knows about Svein, the heroes, and the Trows, to the test. And the truth turns out to be even more horrific than anything he or Aud imagined.
This book is a mighty piece of chest-beating, roaring, wise-cracking fun. It’s like a double-shot of Viking heroism, with snippets of the legends of Svein alternating with chapters of Halli’s thrilling tale. It’s a glimpse of a fantasy world loaded with possibilities—sort of a lost tribe of Norsemen, isolated by barriers of mountain, sea, and (if you believe the old tales) monsters, oh my. It’s spiced with humor, romance, rivalries and grudges stretching across generations, and grisly blood-and-guts, hewing-and-cleaving action. And even if you’re not impressed by yet another world-building feat of conjuring a whole culture, complete with folklore, out of thin air, you may want to stick around anyway. Why? Because Halli’s visits to the high moors are among the scariest two or three chapters I have read in the past year. They go quickly from deliciously creepy to bloodcurdling, and that’s only about a quarter of the way to the awful, sickening terror that Halli, Aud, and you can enjoy together.
The feelings I felt as I read this reminded me of riding a big, wild roller coaster: each time you get on, there’s a point when you wonder what possessed you to put yourself through this; yet when the thrill is over, you feel like getting on again. This seems to be a knack Jonathan Stroud has, judging by his Bartimaeus Trilogy and his other books that I have read, including The Leap, Buried Fire, and The Last Siege. So I am increasingly interested in seeing what else he has done. These titles include The Ring of Solomon (a Bartimaeus prequel), The Ghost of Shadow Vale, and The Screaming Staircase (the beginning of a new series titled “Lockwood & Co”). Don’t be surprised if I post reviews of them soon.