Nancy Farmer is one of those amazing writers whose work is so consistently creative and superbly written that you can open up one of her novels knowing that you're going to get a great story. I mean, The Ear, The Eye and the Arm (so original); I mean House of the Scorpion (so scary!); I mean the three adventures of Jack the apprentice Bard (which she calls the Trolls Trilogy), culminating in The Islands of the Blessed. (Except maybe it's not a trilogy, she says on her blog that there might be another story. She also says there that she's currently writing a sequel to House of the Scorpion ... so in amongst my praise I shall quietly say that somethings just don't need a sequel, despite the three shiny medals.)
At the start of The Islands of Blessed, Jack has settled into a pretty mundane existence in his home in the Saxon village on the edge of the North Sea (in the Orkney Islands?). He's continuing his apprenticeship with the Bard (who says, in my favorite quote: "Odin's eyebrows! You didn't think that being a bard was all singing and picking wildflowers?"), and reining in the enthusiasms of his dear friend Thorgil, the Viking shield maiden. Truth be told, he's just a bit bored. But (this being fiction), Odin's Wild Hunt rampages through his village -- destroying the community's grain stores and blowing in an albatross (with whom Thorgil can speak) named Seafarer. Following the storm, Jack hears an eerie scream in the night: a draugr seeking revenge. The draugr was a mermaid who fell in love with a human (a Christian priest) who shunned her, and now that she's been awakened she won't rest until she's received "a life for a life." Jack, Thorgil and the Bard must head for Notland, home of the finfolk and where the draugr's grave is located, to entice her away from the living.
This being a quest of Jack's, much stands in their way -- corrupt Christians, berserker Northmen, an evil king and the hogboon that terrifies his court, kidnapping hobgoblins, deceiving finfolk, and a side trip to Valhalla. Despite his insecurities, Jack comes into his own as a bard, and it turns out that Thorgil (whose given name -- before the Norsemen adopted her -- is Jill) has unsuspected depths as well. While the ending as explained by Farmer on her blog was not how I interpreted it [spoiler!], this novel is a satisfying conclusion to some terrific adventures. I love the characters in these books and I appreciate the delightful mashup (sorry for that word) of Saxon, Druid (my shorthand for the Bard's lore and nature focus), Norse, and Christian beliefs.
The great narrator Gerard Doyle reads all three of Jack's adventures, although this is the only one I've listened to. I was surprised to figure out that I've only heard him read once, because he is both talented and prolific. Do you think the publishers give him the weighty tomes because they know he can keep things lively over the long haul? (While not Brisingr [763 p.], Islands clocks in at a hefty 479 pages.) They must, because Doyle is so very good at sustaining interest in a story -- through varied pacing and appropriate emotions, coupled with vocally interesting and consistent characters.
In this novel, he's almost like the Bard himself -- regaling the villagers around the fire with his adventures over the course of what must be a very long, very cold winter. Doyle's Bard, with rounded vowels and ringing intonation, is irascible and impatient, yet affectionate. Thorgil, just slightly high and girly, is excitable and impulsive. Some other character highlights: a noble young Northman, a friendly -- but slightly dim -- giant, a scheming king called Adder Tooth, two priests -- one kind, the other not so much, a bunch of dead -- yet still fighting -- Vikings, assorted non-human hobgoblins, finfolk and that albatross.
But --as it should be -- Jack is where my true affection lies. Jack speaks with a slight accent -- it's not a brogue exactly, but has a somewhere-in-rural-England burr (I'm sure a true expert could tell exactly where) that is entirely pleasant on the ears. But what I really enjoy about Doyle's Jack is the character that he skillfully brings forth just by reading the dialog. I hear this smart, polite, "nice young man" -- full of loyalty and courage, yet doubting himself every step of the way. I love his near-constant exasperation at the foolishness of those around him -- from his hobgoblinned sister Hazel to Thorgil's dreams of dying in battle. And two days after listening, I remain chilled by the horror and loss I could hear in Jack's expression as the Bard does something ... well, as the Bard does something.
This is the second book this month where the ancient inhabitants (or their ruins) of the Orkneys play an important role (see here). I'm going to Scotland in a few months for a walking vacation (may as well put all those audiobook miles to good use), and wasn't planning on including the Islands in my touring, but maybe my reading is a sign ...