The Sea of Trolls is the story of a boy named Jack, who is nothing but a poor farmer’s son until the village’s mysterious bard offers to take him as an apprentice and teach him magic. But they’ve barely started when Northmen raiders attack, strike the bard down, and take Jack and his sister Lucy as slaves. From there, it’s all Jack can do to keep them alive—and try to use what he’s learned to someday get home.
Okay, so this is a huge book with tons to say about it. First, the basics: its roots are Nordic lore and incredibly well researched history. You can pinpoint when and where most of it takes place. In the appendix at the end, Farmer explains that it was an interesting time when Norse, Celtic, and Christian traditions coexisted, so all are represented in the book. The history and fantasy blend perfectly; the language is rich; and despite its length (a hearty 450 pages) it’s a quick, easy read.
Of course, a book which is essentially about Vikings has a certain amount of gore to it. It’s hard to create likable, endearing character, who also happen to pillage and murder, and Farmer doesn’t gloss over this fact. Jack is forced to watch as the Viking who enslaved him leads his men on a mission which ends with a town like Jack’s being burnt to the ground, every person slaughtered. He sees prisoners sold to slavers and only avoids that fate because of his magical and musical abilities—Olaf, the Viking, wants him to write an epic poem about him.
But despite that, Olaf isn’t bad. He acts as Jack’s protector when other people menace him, and when they end up on a quest in the later section of the book, Jack could never succeed without Olaf. Olaf is also a loving family man. Even Jack grows to like him and the rest of the Vikings, despite being terrified of them. Despite the terrible things they do, they aren’t portrayed as villains. It isn’t easy to reconcile, so Farm doesn’t really try; Jack accepts that when not in a rage, Olaf and the others are decent people, even fun and kind, and he just hopes never to catch them in a rage. It isn’t satisfying, but it suffices.
Finally, there’s the pacing. Jack doesn’t become an active hero (as opposed to the reactive protagonist, who can’t take control of anything and is swept along by the story) until the last quarter or so of the book. That’s the real “plot”; Lucy is being held as a hostage by an evil half-troll queen, Frith, after Jack accidentally works magic that destroys her beauty. The only way he can find the spell to reverse it is to quest to find the Well of Mimir. Everything else is leading up to that, but it’s a fairly minor section of the book. It doesn’t hurt the story itself much, but it makes everything read a little more awkwardly.
Okay, those are the basic story notes. Now for the thing about the book that really interests me: the gender politics! (I can just picture the shocked look on your faces.)
The first thing that was a good note is that, despite being a book with a male protagonist that’s largely about Vikings, the gender balance is pretty good. The secondary protagonist is Thorgil, a shield maiden. Jack doesn’t know she’s a girl at first, but as he watches her, he sees that she goes out of her way to be tougher, cruder, and more vulgar than the warriors around her. She’s also determined to die in battle, as the only way she feels she can truly prove herself is to end up in Valhalla with the other warriors. Thorgil has as much of a story arch as Jack; at first she’s horrible, and even as Jack warms to Olaf and the others, Thorgil remains bloodthirsty and cruel. But slowly, Jack learns her history. And while Thorgil doesn’t change—at least at that point—she does make sense.
Interestingly, the fact that she’s rejecting everything feminine to try and be one of the male warriors doesn’t read to me as a rejection of, well…being female. The society she lives in is strongly patriarchal; for example, when Thorgil’s father was dying, he demanded the sacrifice of her mother so he could have an honorable funeral. Olaf has three wives, which seems to be the norm. Thorgil has every reason to be seeking honor and acceptance, and there really is no way she can do it as just a girl. Her decision to become a shield maiden is a large part of it, and her attitude is very much to try and prove herself.
Thorgil matures as the book continues. The way she treats Jack—horribly—is given motivation, and eventually she gets through her own issues and is able to treat him as an equal when she accompanies him on the quest. She stops trying to die in battle and starts trying to live through things, so she can continue her role in the quest. And in the end, she’s very much redeemed. Oh, and this spoilery bit is delightful: show
So Thorgil is excellent. Not so excellent is the message about beautiful women: they gain power through beauty by emasculating men, and thus are evil. The villain of the book—in as much as there is one—is Frith, who is a half-troll shapeshifter who appears as inhumanely beautiful. Her beauty captivates Ivar, the Northmen’s king, so much that he becomes “boneless” and weak, disgracing them all. He gives her all his power and is a meek husband. Everyone fears her wrath because Ivar can’t stand up to her; her beauty is literally a spell, and only the strongest of men—Olaf—can see past it.
This is echoed in the story of her sister, who is also mentioned—she used her beauty to defeat and kill warriors. And it’s also very much reflected in Lucy. How pretty Lucy is is repeatedly stressed (though thankfully, in a childish way and not a creepy, sexualized way). All of the Northmen come to like and protect her; they spoil her and carve her toys out of wood to please her. They allow her to order them around, even though she’s a slave. Similarly, she was always spoiled by her father, who carried her around even when she got too heavy and it hurt him, and who let her play when there was work to be done. It’s her selfishness, encouraged because she’s a pretty little girl, that gets her and Jack captured in the first place…And she hasn’t grown up at all through their adventures in the end. Instead, the last real image of her is a picture of selfishness and still living in her fantasy world, and Jack trying to discipline it out of her.
So that’s all kind of unsettling. If they were the only female characters in the book, I’d be distinctly unhappy. But despite the subtext that beautiful women are selfish beings and not to be trusted, the book really provides a variety of female characters—you know, almost as if women were not a monolith, and could have individual traits! Or at least one of a few different roles. There are the vain, beautiful women; shield maidens and warriors (Thorgil and the trolls—more on them in a moment); and wise women, primarily Jack’s mother and Heide, one of Olaf’s wives. Jack’s mother is a minor character, but the lessons she taught Jack through his childhood help him throughout the book. She’s portrayed as the more sensible parent, and interestingly, though her magic is minor it is highly gendered (women’s magic and men’s are different, and it’s witchcraft for them to switch) she teaches it to Jack regardless. It’s useful for him to know, and she doesn’t let the gender norms of magic stop her. Heide is also interesting. Though a minor character, she’s Olaf’s “chief wife” and she chose him because he was beautiful—he accepted her because he had no choice. She’s a wise woman, and the only person in the book who makes Olaf nervous. He treats her very well, because (as she puts it) she’s the only person who won’t put up with him: if he treats her poorly, she’ll leave. So he doesn’t.
And then there are the trolls. I love the trolls. They are, in many ways, a mirror image of the Vikings—but a matriarchy instead of a patriarchy. They’re described as savages and killers, but what we see of them is highly civilized, in much the same way Olaf’s crew is bloodthirsty when fighting but pleasant the rest of the time. They have a queen—Frith’s mother, in fact—who is powerful and beloved. All the female trolls keep male harems. And though Jack initially fears them as monsters (they are horrendously ugly), they help him and Thorgil with their quest. And what’s interesting about them, to me, is that there’s no sense that even the Vikings find their matriarchy to be unnatural or disturbing. Even Olaf, held up as the epitome of masculinity, respects them—even though he narrowly escaped ending up in the queen’s harem.
So in the end, there are a variety of female characters, more so than I usually expect in a fantasy epic. Some are good, some are bad; there are a variety of ways women are shown as good and strong, so it’s unfortunate that the ones who are bad are all bad in the same way. But it gets extra props for me for showing a functional matriarchy which is neither utopia nor dystopia, because women—like men—are neither perfect nor evil when in charge. Instead, it’s a culture just like any other, with its own values and its own gender expectations.
I give The Sea of Trolls four cupcakes. It isn’t perfect, but it’s compelling; what’s good about it outweighs the bad, and I will definitely be picking up more books by Farmer in the future.
Tags: Nancy Farmer