Sep 272013

Heroes_of_the_valley_stroudHeroes of the Valley, by Jonathan Stroud

Synopsis: A coming-of-age story in a Viking village

Brief Book Review: A fantastic YA novel. Stroud really knows how to make a story live within its world. The Valley feels like the entirety of the world, and it’s a rich, vibrant world that lives and grows far outside the pages of the novel itself. The characters are self-determined and display constant agency. The female characters are strong in the real sense, rather than just the “I know kung-fu and wear leather pants” sense. The protagonist moves from an innocent, precocious boy full of naïve ideals to a mature young man who avoids becoming jaded and retains reasonable idealism. There’s plenty of humor, conflict, and action along the way and all of it flows naturally. The way that nothing ever quite works out the way it’s intended to makes for captivating storytelling. And the twist at the end is fantastic.

I’m going to go off on somewhat of a tangent, but it will be relevant to the review.

I’m not a reader of YA. I never choose to read it myself anymore – the few times I have done so in the recent past I’ve always regretted it (Harry Potter, Hunger Games). Not because they aren’t good (they are!), but simply because this genre no longer speaks to my interests. I’m strongly in favor of the current effort to introduce a YA category to the Hugo Awards. I think that they should be recognized, and that they don’t get enough recognition because most Hugo readers feel the same way I do. I also would like the YA’s not to get mixed in with my non-YA Hugo considerations, but that basically never happens because YA’s just don’t get nominated. This book is an excellent example of why there should be a YA category. This book deserves a Hugo nod at the least.

A fellow book-clubber once said he hates reviews that end with “If you like Urban Fantasy, you’ll like this book” because it tells him nothing of value. “Yes, if I like this kind of book, I will like this kind of book. Thanks.” What he wants to know is if the reviewer would recommend the book on its own merits, not just to people who will like that type of book. People who’ve calibrated my taste against theirs (via previous reviews, or the My Top 5 Books post) will want to know if I would recommend this book to me. Of my top 5 books, 4 feature graphic violence. 2 have sexual assault. Gods and post-human entities feature strongly in 3. Identity/self confusion is a central theme for all but one. Those aren’t YA books, and I haven’t been in the target audience for YA books for a long time. This is a great YA book and I’d have recommended it to the me from 20 years ago, or to any young nieces/nephews I have. But despite all that, it’s not a book I’d recommend to me, so – regrettably – Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Seriously though, this is an excellent YA book. It makes for a good change if there’s been too much heavy serious stuff lately. And there is SO MUCH to talk about because the book has SO MANY layers! It is a story about how the stories/lies we tell our children end up distorting their view of reality and coming back to hurt them. These old fables start off each chapter, and they corrupt our hero’s view of the world and end up hurting him both in the developmental and literal and (ultimately) extremely-literal sense. There’s a lot of ambiguity – the bad guys are bad and the good guys are good, but the story also explores bad people doing good things, and good people doing bad things. There are power struggles that go beyond the surface confrontations, trade-offs between idealism and practicality. Initially the valley is a fairly peaceful place, and the book explores the uses of violence and initiation of force from game-theoretic angles. What seems at first to be a story about the importance of honor turns to a story about how honor doesn’t justify killing, turns to a story about how sometimes violence is justified. There is no lack of meaty topics for discussion, we actually went late at our meeting. Definitely Recommended.

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