Thursday, May 28, 2009

Valley boy

I just got back from a week's vacation road trip -- with a rented car so I could play CDs while cruising the California Coast. Like Halli Sveinsson of Jonathan Stroud's Heroes of the Valley, I've been on a journey. (Like Halli, I did get lost a few times, but that's probably because I was paying attention to the book rather than the route!). Halli is the younger son of the Sveinsson clan, one of twelve families that populate the Valley -- thanks to their ancestors who long ago put aside their differences in order to rid the Valley of the deadly Trows. The ancestors' cairns at the top of the mountains serve as the barrier that keeps the Valley safe: Those who dare to venture beyond them are doomed to die at the hands of the Trows ... or whatever evil beings lurk there. Because of the stories that Halli has grown up listening to, he knows that his ancestor, Svein Sveinsson, was the leader of the brave men who fought the Trows.

But Halli is restless, he's looking for adventure hoping to be his own hero, but all he manages to do is irritate all the other Sveinssons. At the annual gathering of the twelve families of the Valley, he accidentally creates his quest: He deliberately poisons (without killing) the son of the family Hakonsson; when the Hakonssons demand an explanation, Halli's uncle Broder is killed by Olaf Hakonsson. To keep the tentative peace of the Valley, Broder's murder goes unpunished, but Halli swears revenge. On his quest, and aided by a spunky heroine named Aud, he learns some surprising things about his own family as well as the other families of the Valley. As events spin beyond his control, Halli becomes a leader and discovers the secret of the Trows. In the end, Halli isn't sure who's a hero, or even what that means.

I found this to be a very sophisticated story, not for the casual listener (or reader). The ideas (what are stories, who are heroes) are complex, our hero is not terribly admirable, it's not a crackling adventure that goes from gasp to gasp. Stroud gives you many opportunities to pause and think at length about what has happened. The ending isn't particularly satisfying. In other words, it's not got Bartimaeus. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I wonder if there are many, many readers who aren't going to stick with it for the "good parts." And even the good parts aren't that thrilling. Face it, Halli is an antihero, and his story is a bit of a downer.

The audiobook is narrated by David Thorn. Each chapter of Halli's story begins with an installment of the saga of the great Svein Sveinsson. Thorn brings a Shakespearean gravitas to these portions of the book, his basso declaiming of Svein's saga seems utterly right. A listener has no difficulty imagining Thorn as the bard, given the seat of honor by the fire on a cold winter's night, regaling everyone in the household with Svein's tales of Nordic heroism and derring do. It's a wonderful performance.

But I didn't like Thorn as the narrator of the "contemporary" part of the novel, of Halli's story. The deliberateness with which he read Svein's story needs considerable spicing up for Halli's; there's a lot of exposition and we need something to sustain our interest. I craved variety and a bit more enthusiasm for Halli's adventures. There were places when I simply tuned out and lost track of what was going on. I found the ending confusing (the Trows are what?), and what should have been a surprising denoument just seemed to drag on.

Thorn would occasionally forget which time period he was in, and go for the bardic voice to tell Halli's story. He tripped up a few times when attempting to sustain vocal characterizations, and I heard lots of variation in Halli's voice: Sometimes he was childish and petulant, and others quite mature sounding.

I also found Thorn's English accent to be a bit of an impediment here: For the first disc, I thought Halli was Harley (and wondered what he was doing in a Norse-themed story). I didn't know the Trows weren't Trolls until I finished the book and checked out a review. I had difficulty parsing some of the other Nordic names, and I never did figure out the name of Halli's father, Arnkell? Ankell?

I'm not sure the reward here is worth the quest -- kind of like what Halli discovers. On the other hand, I'm interested in what happens next to Halli. Maybe those adventures (and they are adventures in my own mind, I don't know if Stroud is going to continue Halli's saga) are going to be the exciting ones!

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