Scandinavia can at times seem like a harsh and unforgiving land, but people have called it home for thousands upon thousands of years. Now broken up between Sweden, Norway, and Finland on the mainland, the Nordic people also settled into Iceland Svalbard, Jan Mayen, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands. This is a setting which as gripped popular culture for years, with many authors choosing to pull from its rich history. The origin of the Vikings, some of the fiercest raiders the world has ever known, they revered a uniquely flawed pantheon of gods and goddesses. Unlike pantheons around the world, the gods of the Norse could be killed. Their names have long since transcended folklore, appearing in everything from science-fiction anime to fantasy novels set in new worlds. Even existing franchises once known for other settings, such as the God of War series of video games, has moved into the north. And influence of the Norse is not diminishing.
The Girl the Sea Gave Back, by Adrienne Young, is set somewhere in the wilds of Scandinavia. While the exact location is unknown due to the historical era in which it appears to take place, the land is both harsh and beautiful. Deep forest and sparkling fjords border col mountains and endless fields. The novel follows two main characters, switching back and forth between their first-person point-of-views, keeping us in their heads as events unfold. Tova and Halvard and both around seventeen or eighteen and on opposing sides of a new conflict. Tova is known to her tribe as a Truthtongue, capable of casting the Runestones and using them to interpret the future. Halvard, meanwhile, is a young man in training to become the next chieftain of his clan. With Halvard’s clan growing in power, Tova casts the runestones to see their fate. “In the future, there will be no Svell.” Seeing the hailstone, hagalaz, and a future without her clan, they decide to strike first, attaching Halvard’s clan in an attempt to establish their dominance over the region.
Tova as a character is a fascinating young woman and an intriguing protagonist to follow, considering the Nordic setting. She is not a warrior or a shield-maiden. Rather, she was born with the ability to see the future. The tattoos that cover her from head to toe show her to be a member of the Kyrr, a mysterious clan on a neighboring island unconcerned with affairs beyond their borders. Somehow, Tova found herself raised by the antagonistic Svell since the age of six. Before that, her memories are but a blur. Growing up, Tova was led to believe that her own family sacrificed her to the sea and cast her out, expecting her to perish. While the Svell believe in her power and see its value, they also believe her kind to be cursed. Truthtongues can see the future through their stones, an ability not meant to be possessed by mortals, according to the Svell. Some hate her and many wish to kill her. Yet, they are the only family she has even known. When the Svell go to war because of her words, she resolves to protect them from destruction.
The other main character, Halvard, finds himself in a fairly dissimilar situation. Halvard has been chosen to lead his clan once the current chieftain passes away. Halvard is a member of the Nādhir clan, a relatively new group that resulted in the coming together of two clans previously engaged in a blood feud. Ten years prior to the story, a demonic army attacked from the ocean, killing these two clans indiscriminately. Facing this third enemy intent on destroying them, the blood feud was set aside and the people came together. Halvard is old enough to remember the fighting, but is one of the new, younger generation of Nādhir to not feel the hatred of the blood feud. As such, they look to him to lead them into a peaceful future. Halvard, similar to Tova, is fairly reserved, but he radiates a silent strength seen by the people around him. He is afraid of leading and understands that he is inexperienced and not ready. The cockiness that defines so many fantasy protagonists is utterly missing, replaced with a calm confidence in his own abilities.
I hesitated in calling The Girl the Sea Gave Back fantasy as the portrayal of magical ability is very subtle. There are references to a demonic army ten years prior to the start of the novel, but it seems unclear if they were actually demonic, or just called as such because no one is certain where the force came from. We see Tova cast the runestones several times, but the act is the interpretation of the runes on the stones, how they fall, and where they fall. Her predictions could be the result of mystical forces, or a self-fulfilling prophecy as everyone treats her word as indisputable fact. The gods are likewise absent from the story, although they too are referenced. Similarly, the Spinners are referenced constantly, being the ones who weave fates into the tree of Urðr. One is even seen, briefly, and guides a member of the Svell to the beached boat where Tova is found. However, there is one instance in which magic is clearly seen. Tova is able to enter a trance through a mixture of meditation and drugs, transporting her mind and finding where Halvard will be in the future. Enough happens in this story for magic to be considered real, and to cement its place as a work of fantasy.
Like most novels and stories, The Girl the Sea Gave Back is not without a healthy dose of light criticism. The book is not overlong and is engaging enough to be a very quick read. Yet, there are large portions where it does not feel as though much is happening, despite the speed in which events move. The middle section especially, once the plot really begins to move, feels both very fast and exceedingly slow as pages fly by without many events occurring. As the novel keeps us in the heads of Tova and Halvard, many other characters also feel undeveloped, with a few notable exceptions. We get a very good sense of Tova’s father figure and the antagonist, but Halvard’s family and companions are left with one note. It also feels as though Tova is not given quite as much to do as Halvard, even though so much of the plot is dependent on her actions. There were also a few times when past events or characters were not fully explained, but this may be due to the novels nature as a standalone sequel, something I was not aware of going in. Sky in the Deep takes place roughly ten years before The Girl the Sea Gave Back and follows different characters, but performs some setup that may help prior to reading this novel.
Overall, The Girl the Sea Gave Back is an enjoyable story with two fascinating and intriguing main characters. While some other parts feel a little undeveloped, the focus is always on Tova and Halvard and that focus never wavered. With events swirling around them, the story explores what is going through their heads and how the changing world affects them. Following their journey from start to finish is an excellent use of time, and I hope to see more of Tova if Young continues the series. More then any other character, her story does not feel over. A different look at Nordic fantasy, this book is wonderful quick read and absolutely worth your time.
The Girl the Sea Gave Back can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total read Time: 6 days
Next on the List: The Nightjar, by Debbie Hewitt