Heroes of the Valley: A quick, enjoyable, often funny YA read

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsYA fantasy book review Jonathan Stroud The Heroes of the ValleyHeroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud

In the long ago history of Jonathan Stroud’s YA fantasy Heroes of the Valley, the great hero Svein gathered the other 11 heroes of the Valley to fight the Battle of the Rock against the ravening inhuman Trows who had long terrorized the Valley residents, snatching babies and killing women and children at night — the only time the Trow came out. At the end of the battle, the heroes were all dead but the Trow were driven utterly out of the valley and into the heights. Since then, the Twelve Houses of the Heroes have buried their dead in cairns lining the boundary of the Valley, each body holding a sword to keep the Trow out while none of the Valley residents go past the cairns. Also, the houses have given up violence, instead solving problem through arbitration, and the leaders of each house are Arbiters, their wives the Lawgivers.

Halli Sveinsson is the second son of the Svein family House. From birth he stands out — strangely short and dark and as he grows up he becomes a mischief-maker, falls in love with the old heroic stories told by his black sheep of the family Uncle (though Halli is never told what horrible thing his uncle did), and just never seems to fit in.

Partly due to Halli’s actions, a killing takes place and Halli is determined to ignore the Valley’s long-standing cultural rules and take his own vengeance. As he journeys to kill his target, he travels through the Valley for the first time, gets a sense of his House’s place in the big picture, and a sense of who he really is. He  begins to question the founding tales of the heroes, the existence of the Trow, and the prohibition against leaving the Valley. He’s joined at times by Aud, a young girl his own age who has her own reasons for wishing to defy the rules.

The coming-of-age element in Heroes of the Valley  is strong and realistic. The plot moves along somewhat slowly at the start as Halli’s character is built and the society explained, then moves more quickly once he leaves his House, and then speeds up quite a bit in the last quarter of the book. The plot bends and twists in unexpected ways, including a major plot twist which could have been more fully presented. But overall it’s a pleasing, pleasant plot — not terribly tense or exciting, except for in a few places, but wholly enjoyable throughout. Some might think the near-ending too out-of-nowhere and the very end a bit abrupt, but I liked both.

The plot is buttressed by the humor that runs throughout the book. The humor is effective and varied — sometimes broad, sometimes subtle, sometimes based in dialogue, other times in understated irony between word and action.
Each chapter begins with a Svein story. These are enjoyable in their own right, but also change over the course of the book in subtle but important ways — don’t assume they’re disconnected from the plot.

The characterization of Halli is strong, mostly in his change over the course of the book, but other characters don’t fare so well and many of them are a bit stock or flat — Aud the chipper: resourceful gender-breaking girl accomplice; Halli’s brother: dismissive and bullying and weak at decisive moments; his mother: stern and unforgiving; etc. They are realistic characters, just not fully three-dimensional.

Heroes of the Valley isn’t as magnificent an achievement as Stroud’s Bartimeus trilogy, but the intent is different here and that’s also a pretty high standard to set. After a somewhat slow start, Heroes of the Valley is a quick, enjoyable, often funny read that raises lots of thoughtful questions and keeps the reader on his/her toes.

Heroes of the Valley — (2009) Publisher: Halli Sveinsson has grown up in the House of Svein, listening to the legends of the heroes as all his forefathers did. His is a peaceful society where the violence of the past has been outlawed and disputes are settled by the Council. But young Halli has never quite seemed to fit in with the others. For starters, he was not at all handsome or tall, like his attractive blond siblings. He’s stumpy and swarthy, with a quick mind and aptitude for getting in trouble. Bored with the everyday chores and sheep herding, he can’t help himself from playing practical jokes on everyone, from Eyjolf the old servant, to his brother and sister. But when he plays a trick on Ragnor of the House of Hakonsson, he goes too far, setting in motion a chain of events that will forever alter his destiny. Because of it, Halli will have to leave home and go on a hero’s quest. Along the way, he will encounter highway robbers, terrifying monsters, and a girl who may finally be his match. In the end, he will discover the truth about the legends, his family, and himself. Jonathan Stroud’s new novel is a hero’s saga and coming-of-age — as well as a surprising look at what bravery really means.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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