The Sea of Trolls: Solid story lacks some spark

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review: Nancy Farmer The Sea of TrollsThe Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer

While it was a nice breath of fresh air to see a book that incorporated the Norse mythology involving Odin, Thor, Ragnarok, etc., something relatively rare in all the fantasy out there, it seemed The Sea of Trolls as a whole lacked a spirit or spark to make it stand out.

The story follows just-started apprentice bard Jack as he and his little sister Lucy are taken prisoner by raiding Northmen (basically Vikings). The Sea of Trolls opens with Jack starting his apprenticeship, moves quickly to the raid and subsequent capture/enthralldom, then slows down a bit in pace. The story is mostly episodic, as Jack experiences a sea voyage, another raid, a short time as thrall to Olaf (the giant Northman berserker who captured him), and a confrontation with Olaf’s queen, a half-troll half human shapeshifter whom Jack inadvertently insults in public via magic. The queen threatens to kill Lucy if Jack doesn’t make amends and so Jack, Olaf, and Thorgill (a young tough short-tempered Northwoman trying to become a berserker) must quest for Mimir’s Well where Jack will hopefully learn how to undo what he has done to the Queen. Along the way he faces dragons, troll-bears, trolls themselves, the Norns, giant spiders, and other obstacles.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe positives are several, beginning with the use of the Norse mythology. Not only does the mythology provide characters, monsters, and background, but the myths themselves are often told by various characters and Farmer does a nice job of conveying them in easy, quick fashion. The sense of detail with regard to culture and geography are also well done. The story is perhaps a bit over-long, but is mostly well-paced and moves along quickly except for a few areas. And the characters are generally well done, with a sense of fullness and depth to them, even the small side characters that too often are just cardboard figures in much contemporary fantasy. Here they have distinct looks and personalities.

There are a few problems. One is that many of the adventures pass all too quickly. The Sea of Trolls might have been better served by fewer encounters more in depth. Instead, because of the pacing, it’s seldom that one feels any true worry or suspense about the dangers involved because they pass so quickly.

Another problem is part positive and part negative. Farmer does a nice job of conveying the complexities of the world in showing Jack that very little is all good or all bad: Olaf and some of the Northmen have a boisterous joy of life and love their (several) wives and (many) children and Jack often finds himself warming to them. But they also kill wantonly and sometimes indiscriminately, killing women and babies as well as men defending themselves. This same dichotomy is true of the trolls who are supposed to be horrid (chase down men or “two-footed deer” as sport) but also show themselves to be intelligent, warm creatures who show Jack true hospitality. While this complexity is to be admired as so much fantasy is good vs. evil (all good and all evil), it isn’t quite handled smoothly here, pulled out now and then to make the point but never really feeling sincere or natural or ongoing. Granted, it’s a subtle point and it isn’t handled horribly, but one wishes for a more deft use of such an important theme.

Finally, the last complain is also somewhat abstract — The Sea of Trolls, while serviceable or better in its treatment of plot and character and pace, never grabbed me. I never felt truly involved with the characters — either truly worried or saddened or angry. Part of it was the quick pacing. But there always felt like there should have been more depth to what was happening. The story reminded me in general terms of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series. Both young adult, both follow a young apprentice who must go on a quest (or several), both have a young girl finding herself, both have a bard and a mythic background. But Alexander’s stories had much more of an emotional impact, a much more intense sense of character and danger, a much more intense importance attached to the events. Even more so when one considers that all five of Alexander’s books would only total a little more than The Sea of Trolls. This is, admittedly, a somewhat unfair comparison as Prydain has now become a true classic in young adult fantasy, but it does give a standard of comparison and if the standard is extremely high, it gives something to aspire to.

Farmer clearly has the ability to plot and create character and her love of story is evident throughout The Sea of Trolls. Maybe a more focused storyline next time might edge her closer to that sense of intensity that sets the truly great fantasy apart from the rest.The Sea of Trolls is pleasant enough reading, but one wishes for a bit more when it’s over and done with.


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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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