Monday, March 30, 2009

Book Review: Heroes of the Valley

Heroes of the Valley
by Jonathan Stroud

Halli Sveinsson lives in an isolated valley that was colonized by twelve founders; Halli's ancestor Svein was one of them. The twelve founders divided up the valley between themselves, and proceeded to fight, bicker, and duel, until the twelve of them united to fight the Trows, evil creatures of the earth that plagued the valley. The twelve founders drove out the Trows, but died in the process, and were buried around the edge of the valley to protect it. No one leaves the valley, for fear of the Trows, and no one comes in.

Halli grew up listening to stories of the great Svein and the other heroes, and he longs to be a hero, too. But Halli is anything but heroic; he's short, cumbersome, and swarthy, and ill-fated due to his birth on Midwinter's Day. Halli seems to be always in trouble, rebelling against authority and playing tricks on his siblings. And, in addition to all of this, there's no place for heroes in a peaceful valley governed by a council of lawgivers.

When a chain of events leads to the death of a family member, Halli sets off on a journey to seek vengeance, a vengeance that is prohibited by the laws of the valley. Along the way, Halli begins to learn the truth behind the old stories, and discovers that being a hero is far different than he expected.

Heroes of the Valley is an amusing, appealing story about an underdog and the true nature of heroism. Just as he did with the Bartimaeus Trilogy, Stroud builds a society and then challenges its preconceptions. I love the way the heroes' tales included throughout the book gradually reveal the true nature of the heroes, just as Halli's adventures reveal to him the truth about his society and its founding myths.

The book is a little slow in the beginning; there's humor right from the start, but it takes a little while for the action to get going. I think the book will appeal most to strong readers who will recognize the irony woven throughout the story.

The characters are quite interesting, and often humorous. Stroud has a keen eye for human nature, and the characters in the book reveal many human foibles, and occasionally the better sides of human nature as well. Halli's friend Aud, daughter of one of the other families, is quite likable, as well as being more than a little heroic herself.

The book is marred by a climax that brings down an otherwise enjoyable book. I don't want to say too much and give anything away, but in the words of my 13-year-old son, it "...seemed to come out of nowhere." The book seems to be leading in a certain direction, and you expect that the climax will either go one way or another way, and then, bam - something completely unexpected that really doesn't seem to fit in with the rest of the book. It's just...strange. I like surprises in books, but I think that the author really has to sow some seeds early in the story so that when you hit the surprise, you can look back and say, "Oh, so that's where that was going." In this case, the climax was more along the lines of, "Say what?"


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