Monday, January 20, 2020


by Matthew J. Kirby
Recommended Ages: 11+

You think being a middle child is hard. Try being the middle child of a Viking chieftain, a plainer second daughter whose younger brother is the heir to the throne and whose older sister's beauty literally started a war. The king wants to marry her off for political advantage. Another chieftain, bitter about being refused her hand in marriage, has challenged him to combat. Now the three siblings – beautiful Asa, boyish Harald and plain Solveig in the middle – have been sent into hiding to protect them from being captured and held for ransom.

Their hiding place is a remote steading between a fjord that freezes shut during the winter and a mountain pass that becomes blocked by a glacier. The king's three children, their household servants and a handful of soldiers are soon joined by a troop of berserkers – soldiers capable of going into a battle frenzy that makes them immune to fear or pain – and a skald, or storyteller, who thinks Solveig would be good at his job.

Waiting for the war to be over should be a simple matter of waiting, but treachery is afoot. Somebody lets the cows out of the shed, exposing them to attack by wolves. Somebody poisons the food, causing several of the berserkers to sicken and die. Somebody, finally, seems to have betrayed them all to the enemy chieftain, Grunnlaug, who covets Asa as his wife.

As members of the household begin to turn on each other in distrust, Solveig's whole world threatens to implode. But she finds a strength in herself – partly through the power of storytelling, partly through her own innate gifts of listening to, understanding and leading people – that could turn a vision of doom into salvation for her little group.

There is a moving lyricism in this book. As its narrator, Solveig doesn't spare her gift of description. Spaced out among the chapters are fragments of a speech she makes to the members of her tight-knit group, expressing her love and trust of them, even including whoever has betrayed them all. The story builds to an epic climax – a phrase that I mean literally – as Solveig's reality merges with the fabric of the legends her skaldic vocation specializes in. There was a point at which I actually sobbed; past which I could read no further without dampness on my cheeks.

This Edgar Award winning book (for juvenile fiction, 2012) was Kirby's second novel, after The Clockwork Three, which I also enjoyed. His books since then have included The Lost Kingdom, Spell Robbers, A Taste for Monsters, the three-book "Dark Gravity Sequence," an installment in the multi-author "Infinity Ring" series and the "Last Descendants" trilogy, set in the "Assassin's Creed" universe.

No comments: