Jul 5, 2011

West of the Moon by Katherine Langrish

West of the Moon by Katherine Langrish

West of the Moon is a revised one-volume edition of Katherine Langrish’s Troll trilogy: Troll Fell, Troll Mill and Troll Blood. As the folklore and fairy tale lovers among you no doubt gather from the title, the story is set in a mythical alternate version of Viking Scandinavia. This is a world of seafarers, fishermen and farming communities, but also a world where trolls, selkies, and other beings from Norse myth and folklore are very much real and frequently become involved in human affairs.

West of the Moon opens when Peer Ulfsson loses his father and is taken from the village where he grew up by an unknown and unkind uncle, Baldur Grimsson. His uncle lives in a mill with his equally unpleasant brother, and Peer’s life with them is absolutely miserable. But he takes comfort in his friendship with Hilde, the daughter of a local farmer. It is with Hilde’s help that he manages to get to the bottom of the sinister plot his greedy uncles are orchestrating. It’s difficult to summarise the plot further without giving too much away, so suffice to say that parts two and three of West of the Moon continue to follow Peer and Hilde’s adventures as they move towards adulthood and learn more about their world, themselves, and each other.

West of the Moon is more fantasy than historical fiction, but I appreciate the fact that the world Langrish evokes feels like it could have existed. Obviously I don’t mean to imply that this is never the case with secondary world fantasy, but the combination of carefully researched historical detail and folklore results in something that is likely to appeal to fans of both genres. Creating a world where creatures from folklore and legend are real is by no means a new premise in fantasy, but it’s made fresh here by the fact that the folkloric creatures are actually fleshed out and turned into interesting characters in their own right, rather than being mere world-building devices.

Take the Nis, for example –the Brownie-like house that Peer gets to know at his uncles’ mill. He was probably my favourite character in the series altogether: he’s responsible for several moments of comic relief, but at the same time he’s vulnerable, good-hearted but prone to making mistakes, and impossible not to cheer for when he goes off on his own adventures in part three.

One of my favourite things about West of the Moon was the balance between good old-fashioned adventure and domesticity. This is a world where men would go on adventures in Viking ships and women would stay behind to manage a farm and look after small children on their own, and Hilde’s family reflects these power dynamics. But at the same time, I loved the subtle gender politics – I loved that although Langrish is never heavy-handed, attention is drawn to this state of affairs, and Hilde’s mother’s own brand of heroism is celebrated and allowed to speak for itself.

I also really liked the fact that the characterisation is complex enough to leave room for nuance, often in ways that tie in with gender issues. In part two, for example, a new mother and family friend named Kersten disappears into the sea in mysterious circumstances, but not before pressing her baby daughter into Peer’s hands and leaving her behind. The sadness of this particular story arch is never downplayed, but at the same time Kersten is humanised. Hilde’s mother admits that as much as she loves her family, there were times when, finding herself alone in a house full of screaming children, she perfectly understood what could make someone walk away.

Part three introduces a character named Astrid, a mysterious young woman who is married to a much older man and is suspected of being a witch or worse. Astrid’s story has more to it than meets the eye, but when all is said and done she too could easily have been villainised. She could easily have become a heartless, scheming woman to whom Hilde is contrasted to emphasise her own good nature. But fortunately Langrish makes things more nuanced than many writers would have, and the result is a story where people are complicated and often have conflicting motivations – just like in real life.

They read it too:
Serendipity
Geraniumcat’s Bookshelf (Troll Fell and Troll Mill)
Charlotte’s Library (Troll Fell)

(You?)

16 comments:

Kailana said...

I read my first book by Langrish earlier this year. I didn't love it, but I didn't hate it, either... I plan to give this one a try at some point.

Vishy said...

Wonderful review, Ana! I haven't heard of Langrish before and she looks like a wonderful author from your description. It is interesting that the book blends historical details with fantasy and the characters are complex. Glad to know that you enjoyed it so much and thanks for the wonderful review!

Veens said...

I have not even heard of this author. This sounds fantastic and I am sure I want to give it a try.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Viking Scandinavia seems like a great setting for a mythical story. And since one of my very favorite tales when young was "East O' the Sun and West O' the Moon," I might have to try this one! (I just found, by the way, that the story is available online at http://web.utk.edu/~gwhitney/tales/east/text.htm . I reread it, and now I understand why I do laundry all the time! LOL)

GeraniumCat said...

What a lovely, thoughtful review, Ana. I think the way the author makes the mythic components part of the story is very clever - she does it so naturally.

Reminds me that I must read the last part of the story :-)

Zibilee said...

The combination of historical fiction and fantasy is one that I have really been intrigued of as of late, and I do have to admit that this set of books sounds excellent. A lot of what you've described seems like it would fit my tastes exactly, so I will be looking for these books. And once again amazed at how you seem to find the most perfect books all the time! Thanks for the great review!

Vivienne said...

You already know my views on this book. I can't wait for Katherine's next one. Lovely review as always.

Meghan said...

Once again you make me long for a book I'd never even heard of before I read your review! A fairy tale set in alternate Viking worlds? With complex, human characters? I need to get a copy!

Aarti said...

This is the second time in the last ten minutes and the second time EVER that I've heard the term "secondary world fiction." What's wrong with the term "epic fantasy"? Just curious, as I don't really understand what "secondary world" means...

That said, I know you aren't really big on the epic fantasy/secondary world fiction genre, so I'm glad you tried this one out and enjoyed it! I don't know if I could read a book in one condensed volume that I KNEW existed in three separate volumes, but it sounds like not much was lost here.

Allison said...

Historical fantasy is one of my favorite genres, and your review definitely has me intrigued!

Daphne said...

This sounds like a fun book -- I kind of love the cover.

heidenkind said...

So this is a... graphic novel? Or an anthology? It does sound like something I might like; I enjoy both fairy tales and folklore. :)

Iliana said...

This is not my typical read but your review makes it sound so good and like a must read for my list!

joanna said...

Wow, Norse mythology, how fascinating!

Amy said...

I haven't heard of Langrish before but I love historical fantasy and Vikings so I'm in. :-)

Kathleen said...

I can't really resist a series with trolls. This sounds like it has the perfect balance of character development, action, and setting to insure I will enjoy it.