Heroes of the Valley
Jonathan Stroud
Hyperion, 2009

Heroes of the Valley is a young adult fantasy novel by the same author as the popular Bartimaeus Trilogy. It is theoretically intended for ages 10 and up, but I would tend to recommend it for 14-and-up, simply because it is written with the assumption that one has a more developed attention span than most of the fifth graders I know.

When the settlers first came to the valley, they discovered that there were mysterious and sinister creatures that appeared in the night. They traveled beneath the ground, and would explode from the earth to snatch anyone who went out at night, dragging them into their tunnels and devouring them. As the settlers became more cautious, the Trows became bolder, and it became necessary for the settlers to build floors and courtyards from large stones, and then to wall in their villages to keep the Trow out. Thankfully, a hero emerged, the Great Svein, who united the warriors of the valley to stand against the Trow. They spilled their blood at nightfall at the base of a large rock, and when the Trow came to feed they slaughtered them as the beasts attempted to climb up after them. The battle lasted all night, and hundreds of Trow were killed... but when the villagers arrived in the morning, they found that the heroes were dead on their feet. The heroes were buried in cairns along the rim of the valley, so that even in death they would keep the Trow at bay.

But all of that is long in the past. These days the Trows are safely blocked from entering the valley by endless rows of cairns, and no one in living memory has seen one. The descendants of the heroes have settled down to a steady, if somewhat boring, life of farming, herding, fishing, and low-key trading. Halli Sveinsson is of noble birth -- which isn't saying much, really, except that when his dad goes out to farm the fields, he's the chief farmer. Halli is the second son, and moreover, a bit of a pest, so he doesn't get the respect the other members of his family do. And as he gets older and becomes more bored with valley life he gets into more and more trouble. What he really wants to do is to follow in the footsteps of the heroes, but there's not much heroing to be done nowadays.

Halli gets into all sorts of trouble -- minor thievery, major diplomatic blunders, major thievery, accidental (but totally excusable) murder (really!), and not-particularly-successful questing, and general ineptitude -- trying to show that he is worthy of the Sveinsson name. Eventually he does make some progress on this quest, but only after an embarrassing number of misadventures, and not without some help from... pretty much everybody, and a good bit more luck than he deserves.

Heroes of the Valley is written as modernization of old Norse myths, specifically an Icelandic saga. This is an interesting setting, and it is well done. The story alternates between snippets of the tales of Svein at his finest and the much more in depth story of Halli being not-so-great. There are a lot of adventures described, most of which don't really have a point other than building the might (or lack thereof) of the central characters. However, the story does go somewhere, and does have a point, and after a slow start, Halli's character does start to develop and personal growth is apparent. There is even something like a moral, eventually. At times the story reads like a slapstick comedy film, at others a Woody Allen tragi-comedy, but for the most part it is well-written and not too over-the-top.

Overall, this novel is perhaps just a little too long for its own good, and it doesn't have the exciting world and bright characters that made his Bartimaeus books so popular. It is amusing and engaging, but not spectacular. It does keep changing, so don't be deceived if the story starts to seem a bit mundane or predictable -- something will happen, even if it takes longer than it should. I would particularly recommend this book if you like fantasy based on mythology (the mythology here is made up, but has the feel of a Norse saga), and if you enjoy intrepid anti-heroes.

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