11 August 2011
REVIEW: WEST OF THE MOON
Author: Katherine Langrish
UK Publisher: HarperCollins Children's Books
UK Release date: March 2011
Genre: Historical fantasy
West of the Moon is an abridged version of three separate books, all following young Norse boy Peer Ulfsson after the death of his father, a revered wood craftsman. In the first story Peer is take away by his two uncles Baldur and Grim who set him straight to work in their mill at Trollfell. With only his dog Loki as a companion Peer is lonely and dejected, but soon he makes friends with young and wild farm girl, Hilde. When the uncles take Hilde’s younger twin siblings as a gift for the troll king, Peer and Hilde try to rescue the twins by entering the trolls’ underground lair.
In the second story, with his uncles gone, Peer leaves the mill to live with Hilde and her family and work on their farm. When Peer discovers the abandoned mill is working at night, he tries to find out who is using the mill and why. During his investigations he has to face Granny Greenteeth, a scary water witch who is looking to steal a child for her own.
In the third story, the arrival of a new long ship tempts Hilde and Peer to travel to Vinland to explore the unchartered country. They soon realise that they have set sail with a crew of outlaws and won’t be returning home for many years. Afraid of their Captain and his wild son Harold, Hilde and Peer struggle to come to terms with their new home in Vinland, the threat of natives and mythical creatures, all whilst trying to find a way home.
Review: The setting for the three stories is a Viking Age settlement several hundred years ago, when America was still unchartered territory and men still went-a-viking. Encompassed into the story are Norse legends and myths, including trolls, water witches and the nithing – a shy but friendly house elf that cleans and tidies for a bowl of gruel. When young Peer and Hilde travel to Vinland, they encounter ‘skraelings’, better known as Native American Indians, as well as other mythical creatures including Yetis. This combination of historical fact and mythology adds both reality and magic to Katherine Langrish’s beautifully crafted world.
Admittedly I was hesitant about what might happen in the story when I realized that Vinland was on the verge of being explored and how the skraelings might be treated. To my great relief, the story handled the invasion of Vikings in a balanced but realistic way, looking at a multitude of points of view from the bully Harold who viciously kills innocent skraeling, to the curious and superstitious natives.
Although the plotline is fairly simple, there is intrigue, peril and a few twists and along the way. A sense of darkness and impending danger surfaces in each of the stories, when Peer and Hilde enter the trolls’ underground lair and later when they discover they are stranded with a pirate crew and unpredictable captain. With the threat of mythical creatures lurking all around, this helps carry the stories along and keep them flowing at a steady pace.
The stories are set around Peer and Hilde, and written in a dual narrative. At first Peer is very much a victim – when his father dies from an infected wound he is taken in by uncles who he’s never met before and put straight to work. You can’t help but sympathise with the horrible circumstances he lives in and the cruel way he is treated. Peer is often a reluctant hero, being brave to impress the free spirited Hilde. In the third story, he undergoes a slow but steady transition from boy into young man, eventually standing up for himself against the bully. It is these little flaws and his transformation that makes Peer believable, likeable, and worthy of fighting for Hilde’s love and attention.
Unlike Peer, Hilde is a headstrong young girl not afraid to go into the trolls’ underground lair to rescue her family or to travel to Vinland, however it is this stubborn and impetuous nature that leads her and Peer into trouble. As we see their developing relationship from both perspectives, you can’t help but feel for Peer who has to compete for Hilde’s attention and fight against her perception of him as a brother.
The nithing, a friendly house elf, is my favourite character and reminds me very much of Dobby the house elf from Harry Potter. Hiding in the rafters of the house and coming out only at night, he tidies and cleans in exchange for gruel and butter. Treated badly by the uncles, the nithing gets on well with Peer as well as Hilde and her family, and moves to their farm to hide in their roof and help clean. His role expands with each book and in the third story he plays a part in helping tackle the bully Harold. His character brings humour to the stories, taking on new names such as ‘nithing the sea farer’ when Peer tells him he is the first nithing to travel by boat.
West of the Moon blends Viking history and mythology, drawing you into a captivatingly different setting for a fantasy story. A refreshing read, Katherine Langrish is certainly an author to keep an eye on!