Nancy Farmer never intended to be a writer. Rather, the award-winning childen's author says, "I wanted to be an explorer . . . to go out and have adventures and have fun." Although she's no Christopher Columbus, Farmer has certainly had her share of adventures, from spending three years in the Peace Corps in southern India to living in a California temple with a group of Hare Krishnas. Eventually, she says, "I wanted to do something interesting, so I bought a ticket on a freighter to Africa." She ended up spending nearly 20 years in Africa, where she met and married her husband, Harold.
It was only after the couple returned to the U.S. that Farmer's writing career flourished. From Do You Know Me?, set in Zimbabwe, to The House of the Scorpion, a futuristic look at human cloning that won the 2002 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, Farmer has used her love of adventure to create wonderfully engaging books for young readers.
In her latest novel, The Sea of Trolls, Farmer ushers readers into an exciting, unpredictable world to sail the high seas and explore mysterious landscapes in the company of great Norsemen, trolls, an eerily knowledgeable crow and an enormous wild boar with magical powers, among other fantastical beings.
The story begins in 793 A.D., when a small Saxon village is raided and destroyed by beserkers—Vikings, or Northmen, who thrive on battle and blood and fame. Jack (a budding bard with magical powers he has not yet mastered) and his younger sister Lucy are kidnapped by the mighty Olaf One-Brow. The two struggle to remain hopeful despite the threats of Thorgil, an angry shield maiden, and any number of bizarre and unimaginable dangers—not to mention the seemingly impossible quest they must embark on if they ever hope to return home.
In an interview from her home in California, Farmer says her interest in Norse mythology was sparked by a book her husband gave her. "I wanted a vacation after finishing The House of Scorpions," she explains. "It was a depressing book to write. I wanted something I'd never seen or done before." She studied numerous books on history and mythology (those who are similarly entranced can find further reading in the Sources section of The Sea of Trolls), learning about Norse kings, trolls and Viking society. "Some things I made up, and some I got from mythology," she says.
The combination of mythology and Farmer's imagination is a powerful one; whether detailing Jack's attempt to please the angry Olaf or describing the physiognomy of the eight-foot-tall trolls—strong women with sharp wits and mind-reading abilities—the story is exciting and filled with more than enough surprises to ensure enthusiastic page-turning. Farmer's intricate descriptions of plants, insects and the countryside paint pulsating, bright mental images of a lush fantasyland.
The story will call to mind The Lord of the Rings—the quest, the unexpected bonding among those who might otherwise never have met, the fantastical people and creatures encountered along the way. Says Farmer, "I've obviously read and reread Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, George Orwell. I practically have them memorized."
Farmer says September 11 also influenced her as she wrote The Sea of Trolls. "I started writing after 9/11, and I did look for a point in history that was similar [to the historical events in the book]." This way, she says, "Kids could approach the idea of 9/11 indirectly, and come to terms with things on a symbolic level. Lots of children's writers write about an actual event, but I thought [9/11] might be a little too intense for children."
And, she points out, "I like writing for kids because they're so wide open to ideas. Adults will pick up books like McDonald's hamburgers and eat them and drop them, but you can try all sorts of things writing for kids."
Her young fans have responded enthusiastically. "I do hear from children a lot," she says. "It's quite startling—I worry because I don't have that much to teach people. I'm here for the cheap thrills. Don't base your life on me!"
Linda M. Castellitto has never encountered a wild boar, thank goodness. Copyright 2004 BookPage Reviews.
Horn Book Guide Reviews 2005 Spring
Drawing upon history, Norse and Celtic myth, and Farmer's own abundant imagination, this story is long but engrossing, a "cruel tale with a merry heart" about a Saxon boy and what befell him upon his and his younger sister's capture by marauding Northmen (and, later, trolls). The book is effectively sparing in its use of fantasy elements, but when Farmer pulls out all the stops, she does so with aplomb and assurance. Copyright 2005 Horn Book Guide Reviews.
Horn Book Magazine Reviews 2004 #6
Farmer moves far north of her favored hot-weather climes for her latest hero-tale, which takes place along the various coasts of the North Sea in the late eighth century. Drawing upon history, Norse and Celtic myth, and Farmer's own abundant imagination, the story is long but engrossing, a "cruel tale with a merry heart" about a Saxon boy named Jack and what befell him upon his and his younger sister's capture by marauding Northmen (and, later, trolls). Readers will spot themes and motifs familiar from Farmer's previous novels, including seriocomic helper figures, a ferociously loyal sibling pair, and a most adroit fusion of the natural and supernatural worlds. The book is effectively sparing in its use of fantasy elements, but when Farmer pulls out all the stops -- such as Jack's encounter with the three Norns -- she does so with aplomb and assurance. Copyright 2004 Horn Book Magazine Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2004 #2
He left as an apprentice and returned a full-fledged bard, complete with a fire-wizard's staff in hand and a crow perched on his shoulder. Between being kidnapped by Norse berserkers and returning home, Saxon Jack has met Norse Jill, saved sister Lucy from a shape-shifting troll queen, faced a troll-bear, dragons, and giant spiders, and drunk from a magic well. This tale of a Saxon Bilbo Baggins, set in c.e. 793, at the advent of 200 years of Viking raids on the British Isles, weaves a colorful tapestry of bards and raiders, evil queens and plucky heroes, quests and home. Jack is a friendly companion in this exciting story of sacrifices made, lessons learned, and friends lost and found, all told with grace and humor. Allusions to Beowulf, the destruction of the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne, and the Norse legend of Jack and Jill offer a rich backdrop for a hugely entertaining story sure to appeal to fans of The Lord of the Rings. (appendix, sources) (Fiction. 10-13) Copyright Kirkus 2004 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Library Media Connection Reviews 2005 February
Set in the time of Vikings, druids, trolls, and Saxons, Jack and his sister are kidnapped by the berserker Olaf One-Brow. Jack knows the story of Beowulf and has magical powers that he doesn't fully understand. To avoid slavery, Jack tells Olaf he is a full-fledged bard. The ship lands on the kingdom of King Ivar, the Boneless and Queen Frith, a half troll. Jack acts as bard at King Ivar's court until he unintentionally breaks Queen Frith's spell with his own, and chaos ensues. Now he must undertake a quest into Jotunheim to drink from Mimir's Well to learn to remove the spell he cast. As the Viking ships are swept away so will you be, bouncing from one larger than life character and adventure to another. Readers will empathize with all of the characters: the good, the bad, and the amoral. Nancy Farmer gets a little carried away, but it is not a problem. This is a story to transport the reader to another time and place, to immerse oneself in the mystery, magic, and lore of another world. Once again, Farmer gives her readers a story to savor. Highly Recommended. Jennifer Hartshorn, Children's Outreach Librarian, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, Washington, District of Columbia Â© 2005 Linworth Publishing, Inc.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2004 July #3
Readers will want to sail through these nearly 500 pages to find out what happens to young Jack and his sister, Lucy, kidnapped from their homeland by a Viking crew led by Olaf One-Brow. The two then travel across the sea where Ivar the Boneless, king of the Northmen, reigns with his half-troll wife, Queen Frith. The Bard, who fled from Queen Frith and has taken refuge on the boy's small island ("Nowhere in the nine worlds is safe for me as long as she is abroad," the Bard explains) takes in 12-year-old Jack as an apprentice. The old man manages to teach Jack some magic and some of the complex history of the Northmen and their enemies, the Jotuns or trolls, before Olaf and his men invade. The book brims with delectable details. Ivar the Boneless, for instance, "wears a cloak made from the beards of his defeated enemies" and Queen Frith's beauty dissolves when Jack begins to sing a tribute to her ("Her features rippled and twisted like the beasts carved on the walls"). Her rage at reverting back to her troll-like appearance prompts Jack's quest to seek Mimir's Well, in the heart of Jotunheim (troll country) in order to reverse the spell and save his sister, whom Queen Frith threatens to sacrifice if her beauty is not restored. Plotting and incidental players such as dragons and giant spiders in Jotunheim take precedence over character development here. But if the relationships are not as fully fleshed out as in Farmer's previous books, fans of Viking and adventure tales will still be up late nights to discover Jack's fate. Ages 10-13. (Oct.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal Reviews 2004 October
Gr 5-9-Farmer draws upon Scandinavian mythology and medieval history to create an engaging tale. Jack, a bard's apprentice, and his little sister begin a series of harrowing adventures when they are kidnapped from their peaceful Saxon island by Viking "berserkers." Saved from death by his knowledge of magic and poem making, Jack gradually earns the respect, and even the friendship, of his captors. Olaf One-Brow is an especially magnetic character, despite his love of bloodshed, while a prideful young female warrior who initially detests the boy also becomes an ally. The fast-paced tale seeps deeper into magic as Jack must undertake a quest to the far north to drink "song-mead" from Mimir's Well, increase his powers, and ultimately save his sister's life. He faces dragons, trolls, and the mysterious Norns, surviving by a combination of craftiness and luck. Throughout, he ponders the nature of the people and creatures he encounters, even learning to admire the courage and vitality of the berserkers, while remaining appalled by their thirst for blood and a heroic death. Jack's growing maturity and wisdom develop naturally within the novel's flow. Geographical and mythological elements are revealed through conversations, rather than narrative description. Despite the legendary tone of some of the events, there are plenty of lighthearted moments, and the characters never seem stiff or contrived. This exciting and original fantasy will capture the hearts and imaginations of readers.-Steven Engelfried, Beaverton City Library, OR Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
VOYA Reviews 2004 October
Eleven-year-old Jack is peacefully learning to understand and control the "life force" as apprentice to the Bard in their Saxon community in 793 AD. Then the Bard is attacked by a Nightmare, and Viking berserkers kidnap Jack and his little sister, Lucy. Jack manages to save them from being sold into slavery by revealing his training as a bard, or as the Northmen would say, skald. Olaf One-Brow decides to keep Jack for his own, but Lucy, the thrall of shield maiden Thorgil, is meant as a gift to the half-troll Queen Frith-the same queen who attacked the Bard. But when Jack's magic accidentally offends the queen, he, Olaf, and Thorgil set off on a quest to Mimir's Well in Jotenheim (troll country) to get the remedy. There Jack fights troll-bears, dragons, and visits the Troll Queen before drinking from the well, saving Lucy, and ultimately, returning to his Saxon home Lighter in tone and subject than The House of the Scorpion (Atheneum/S & S, 2002/VOYA October 2002), this novel is nevertheless deceptively complex. There is enough magic, history, and mythology to keep fantasy lovers enthralled, yet the humor, modern speech (Jack is warned to "just say no to pillaging"), and nonstop adventure will pull in reluctant readers as well-if they are not daunted by the number of pages. All will come to love the distinctive characters-especially the brash, bloodthirsty Northmen-just as Jack does on his quest.-Rebecca Hogue Wojahn 4Q 5P M J Copyright 2004 Voya Reviews.