Saturday 21 February 2015

#CBR7 Book 19: "Odinsbarn" (Odin's Child) by Siri Pettersen

Page count: 621 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Walking from the pub during a dark and cold winter night, the solitary Thorrald finds a baby abandoned in the snow. Unwrapping her to see if he can find signs of who left her there, he discovers that the child has no tail and is therefore one of the feared abominations from another world, believed to spread the Rot and worse things. Unable to leave her to die, he instead uses his daggers to give her scars, making it look as if wolves tore her tail off.

Fifteen years later, Hirka, as he has named the girl, is worried because she, like all other fifteen-year-olds in the country, is about to go to the capital to complete the Rite, a coming of age ceremony where a person's future course in life is determined, mainly based on how much magical ability and connection to the natural forces that person has. Hirka has no such abilities. She's a dud. Not only is she seen as a bit of a freak because her father is the eccentric herbalist and wise-man, living in a possibly haunted hut at the edge of town, but her outspokenness, bright red hair and lack of tail makes her stand out. No one but her father knows that she has absolutely no connection to the Earth, no ability to summon up the mystical forces around her. Her father is determined that they must pack up and leave the little village, seeking refuge in Ravnhov, the one province where the inhabitants ignore the precepts of the capital and no longer send their teens to the Rite. When Hirka expresses reluctance to leave the only life she's ever known, her father tells her the truth - she's a human, an Odin's child, one of the fabled creatures from another world, an abomination and a terror. Her mother didn't die in childbirth and she was never attacked by wolves as a child, having her tail severed. She is devastated, but determined to find a way to complete the Rite.

Hirka goes to one of her only friends, Rime, for help, unaware that he is in fact struggling with difficulties of his own. Orphaned at the age of six, Rime is from one of the most prominent ruling families in the country, and his grandmother Ilume is one of the most influential members of the Council. While in theory, the twelve seats on the Council are to be open to anyone at the Rite with enough magical ability, in practise the positions are kept within the same twelve families. At his own Rite ceremony, Rime showed immense promise, more magically adept than anyone his age. Completely going against all his grandmother's expectations, Rime swears himself to the Kolkagga, the secretive, faceless order of assassins employed by the Council, who forswear property and family, fearless in their missions because they consider themselves already dead.

Hirka is unaware that Rime has been training with the order for the last few years since his own Rite ceremony, and is only back home to escort his disapproving grandmother, who is moving permanently to the capital. Having always been an outsider as well, because of his status, Rime greatly values his friendship with Hirka because she never treated him with the fear and/or deference common in everyone else. He's astonished when she tells him she has no way of sensing the powers of the earth, but working together, they discover that Hirka can channel Rime's powers as long as they are touching, even amplifying them.

Neither is aware of the sinister machinations of Urd, the most recent member elected to the Council. He wins his place after careful lobbying and manipulation of the other members after his father's death and is working to incite a war between the rebellious province of Ravnhov and the rest of the country. His reasons for doing so remain unclear at first, but there are clear connections between his schemes and the events that led to Hirka being found in the snow fifteen years ago.

Hirka knows that if it is discovered that she is an Odin's child and a human, she will most likely be hunted down and killed. She should seek refuge among the people of Ravnhov and stay far away from the Rite ceremony and the capital. Even before discovering her true heritage, she knew that she and Rime were from vastly different spheres, socially and financially, yet when he returns after years away, she can't help but notice how their childhood friendship has evolved into something more. She knows that she needs to help him stop the war that is brewing, even if it means her secrets being uncovered and her life becoming forfeit.

This is the first fantasy novel I have ever read in Norwegian. I know, it's my native language, I work as a Norwegian teacher, it's frankly shameful that I haven't read more of the huge amounts of great literature produced by my own countrymen and women every year. In my (not very good, but I offer it nonetheless) defence, when I started reading fantasy, in my teens, there was no one really writing decent fantasy in Norwegian, and the early translations of the books I was discovering were generally dreadful. So I became a complete book snob, determined only ever to read fantasy in the original language (English) and haven't really been paying much attention to what has been produced in my own country for the past two decades.

It was actually a really strange experience to read this book. For the first fifty pages or so, I was having to get used to reading about an epic fantasy world with a distinct and genre-specific vocabulary in Norwegian. I'm well versed in fantasy terms in English, in Norwegian, it's a different story. Writing this review has proved a bit of a challenge, as this book as of yet isn't translated into English (I hope for the sakes of all my non-Scandinavian readers that it is, so you can read it too), so I have no reference to help me with a lot of the sometimes unusual Norwegian terms. While I work as a language teacher and teach English as a foreign language to teenagers, I am by no means a translator, and have tried to muddle through as best I can to convey the plot, even though I'm writing in a different language than the book is in originally.

This is a fantasy aimed at young adults, and it's been nominated for several awards. It won the Fable Award in 2014 and was recently ranked 9th in a poll of the best YA fiction of all time by one of the national newspapers. It's the first book in a trilogy, and I've already placed myself on the waiting list for the sequel at my local library.

There is so much to like about this book. The world building is creative, set in a world with clear Old Norse influences, yet clearly different to our own. All the inhabitants have tails and inherent magical abilities. The name of the trilogy translates as The Raven Circles, referencing the magical stone circles that can be found in various locations around the world. Ravens are messenger birds and holy animals, the physical manifestation of the god everyone worships, the Seer. Odin is a foreign and alien god, believed to have stolen his ravens from this world. Humans are seen as something scary and terrible, spreading something known as the Rot and believed to be in league with the Blind Ones, terrifying monsters who bring death and destruction. Of course, no one has ever actually seen a human before Hirka arrives, through some mystical ceremony we learn very little about.

There are a number of provinces, only one of which is not firmly under the control of the capital and the ruling Council. There are legends about how the Council was formed, long ago, by twelve warriors who fought a threat from the Blind Ones. There used to be independent kings ruling the various regions, and Ravnhov is the only province where they still want to go back to the old ways. There is a possible civil war about to start, incited by the ambitious Urd for reasons known only to him.

The story is told as if the reader is familiar with the world and its traditions, avoiding info dumping altogether. The geography, history, political and religious traditions of the world is all revealed gradually, as the story progresses. After the intriguing prologue, where Thorrald finds the baby in the snow, the first part of the plot may be a bit slow, but it sets the scene and establishes many of the important characters in a good way. I was certainly hooked early on.

Hirka is a great character, brave, loyal and self-sacrificing, without ever becoming a Mary Sue. You sense how lonely her childhood has been, with her only real friends being Rime, who is as close to a prince as you can get in a society which has abolished kings, and Vetle, the half-witted son of the village's Raven Keeper. She desperately wants to fit in, and her entire world shatters when she discovers her entire life has been a lie. She has been trained in herbalism and the healing arts by Thorrald, the only father she's ever known and uses her gifts to help people, even when she could be risking her own safety. She is clever and quick-witted, but not any stronger or faster than any other girl her age. She finds herself having to flee for her life more than once, but refuses to stay in hiding when she discovers that her friends might be in danger or that there are wrongs to be righted.

Rime, her childhood friend and potential love interest, could learn from her example (and does over the course of the story). Pampered and raised in luxury by his grandmother after his parents were killed during a trip, in an avalanche he miraculously survived, he has always felt his family's expectations of him as a heavy burden. He has no desire to follow his grandmother and take one of the most prominent seats on the ruling Council. By becoming a member of the Kolkagga, he gives up the riches of his family name, the political power and the influence to become one of many faceless assassins, the dark hand of the Council, one of a vast brotherhood of equals. Of course, he is also escaping the responsibilities of future rule and as the book progresses, it is quite clear that the political situation in the land is growing increasingly more corrupt and there is need of good people to step in and effect change in how the country is ruled. By becoming Kolkagga, Rime is unable to influence politics in a more advantageous direction.

I very much enjoyed the story, and can't wait to see what happens next. I did, however, wish that the magical abilities that everyone was supposed to possess could have been a bit more clearly explained. I also thought some of the events towards the exciting climax of the book happened very quickly and in some cases, rather too conveniently. Not everything was explained to my satisfaction, shall we say.  There is the beginning of a romance in the book, which frankly I would have loved more of, but it is a YA book, and the protagonists are fifteen and eighteen, so I suppose I will just have to hope it develops further in the books to come. I was happy to discover the first book was featured in the annual February book sales, so have already bought my own copy, saving me from having to rely on the library if I want to re-read.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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