The Sea of Trolls is a great historical fantasy epic for the middle grade set. It follows the adventures of 12 year old Jack after he and his little sister Lucy are captured by Northmen.
After gravely insulting Frith, a half-troll queen, Jack needs to go on a quest to see the queen of the trolls and drink from Mimir’s Well to figure out how to undo the insult in time to save Lucy from being sacrificed to the goddess Freya. He’s accompanied by Olaf—the Viking who captured him, Thorgil—a shield maiden a year or two older than he is, Rune—the old skald who takes a liking to him, and Bold Heart—a crow who has unusual intelligence.
The story is epic in many ways and is a great introduction to fantasy epics for the younger set. It’s long but moves quickly. It presents challenging issues but in ways that most tweens will grasp and be able to handle.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Olaf, Thorgil, and the other Vikings are raiders and berserkers. They typically kill and steal, and sometimes that’s pretty graphic. They will demolish entire villages, including the women and children. The story doesn’t back down from how brutal they can be. They expect and want to die in battle, so they will fight rather than negotiate or flee.
The trolls are also violent. They’re awful to each other and they tend to kill and eat humans.
Olaf dies while fighting a troll-bear. His loss is both mourned and celebrated, for he died bravely and had quite the funeral. Jack can’t quite get past the idea that Olaf could have chosen not to fight the troll-bear.
Thorgil, Jack, and Bold Heart end up in a dragon’s nest with four baby dragons. Bold Heart convinces one baby to kill his sisters, which he does. Then Thorgil kills that baby. It’s true that killing the baby dragons was probably the only way to escape, but for readers who like dragons, it’s a pretty brutal scene. Jack later regrets that they had to kill the dragon, but understands that it was necessary. He chooses later not to kill when he can come up with other solutions.
Jack’s father wanted to be a priest, but instead he had to become a farmer. He has a very strict view of religion which includes a vengeful god. Jack considers himself a Christian and expects that his afterlife will include Heaven, although his father’s faith doesn’t feel right to him. As a bard in training, he’s learning how to tap into the Life force that’s all around—this seems to stand separate from individual religions. The Vikings believe in the Norse gods and Valhalla. To Jack, these are all just different branches of the tree of life that’s at the center of the Life force.
Through the Life force, Jack can do magic. Like his mentor, known as Dragon Tongue among the Vikings and trolls, Jack has access to fire magic most powerfully. There are other kinds of magic, too. Jack’s mother can speak with bees. Yet many are afraid of magic, including Jack’s father and Thorgil. There’s a fear of witches and people having access to the wrong kinds of magic.
Multiple Spouses and Forced Marriage
The Vikings take several wives. Olaf has three wives and many children. The trolls take several husbands. The male trolls are called louts, and the troll maidens can choose several. Additionally, she can capture husbands as she wishes, which is how you tend to get half-trolls.
It’s clear that not all of these spouses wish to be married. Some of them are political arrangements and some are just unable to escape. Through Jack’s eyes, this all seems very weird to the reader, but it’s never fully condemned because it’s so normal to the cultures who are doing it.
People Are Complicated
Olaf captured Jack; he owns Jack and can sell him or do whatever he wishes with him. Lucy is captured by Thorgil and eventually given as a gift to the nasty queen. Jack starts out hating Olaf, Thorgil, and the other Vikings. Over time, as he survives his quest with them, he grows to respect and even like them—and then they do something absolutely awful again.
His experience with the trolls is pretty good, for he’s been given something that lets him pass unharmed. But they and the Vikings both remind him that trolls will fight, kill, and eat humans under many circumstances. Both groups of people do shocking and horrible things, yet we see them care for children, lovingly hand make toys, etc. People are complicated.
Frith, the half-troll queen, is the only person who really isn’t complicated. She’s awful. Both the trolls and the humans despise her.
Thorgil is a warrior with a bad attitude. She and Jack frequently fight, and he can’t understand her perspective about anything. He doesn’t find her at all beautiful until she drinks from the well of Mimir and her outlook on life changes. Then he realizes that she was beautiful all along, although her personality made her seem less physically beautiful. Although he does see her beauty, he’s never romantically interested in her, nor she in him. They are friends by the end, though.
Fact Vs. Fiction
Jack’s father told Lucy stories about how she is actually a princess. She seems to believe these stories and rules their family as a cute tyrant. When Lucy and Jack are rescued, she escapes into this fiction which helps her keep her sanity during horrible mistreatment. Although Jack gets frustrated sometimes by her apparent inability to see the world as it is, he learns that it’s her coping mechanism and in the end he’s grateful for it.
Worth of Humans
Thralls are basically slaves and therefore worth less than others. People must continually prove their worth. Killing another to get what you want is fine—it proves you were the more worthy person. People can be given to others either as slaves or as spouses. On the other hand, even a thrall can rise up if she proves herself worthy through her deeds. Or if he has the magic of a bard.
Jack, of course, never buys into these ideas—he hates being a slave and doesn’t think anyone should be treated like that. On the other hand, the reader is aware that his culture has its own strong class issues that prevent all people from being equal.
This is a great book for precocious readers. It’s long and somewhat challenging, but in ways that are appropriate for most tweens. Its mix of history and fantasy may encourage kids to explore more on their own. For adults who enjoy epic fantasy but could do with a little less sex and death, this is a good choice. It’s the first book in a trilogy, but I was unaware of the others until I looked it up for this review. The Sea of Trolls stands quite well on its own. I’d recommend it for precocious readers, maybe 10 and up.
The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer
Published in 2004 by Simon Pulse
First in a trilogy, followed by The Land of the Silver Apples and The Islands of the Blessed
Read a paperback borrowed from Booksfree