Thursday, February 26, 2009

Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud

I love fantasy. Always have, always will--from Tolkien and George R.R. Martin right down to Michael Moorcock's freaky Elric saga and pulp novels like the Drizzt Do'Urden books.

But I know that fantasy can sometimes be a little... predictable. Diana Wynne Jones (the author behind Howl's Moving Castle) even wrote a Hugo-winning book called the Tough Guide to Fantasyland that skewers the genre's many cliches in literally alphabetical detail. (For example: Why so many cloaks? Why so much stew? And must every caravan really be ambushed?)

So it's a special treat when an accomplished fantasy author upends the genre and plays with our expectations. Heroes of the Valley does just that, and in a very meta fashion. British author Jonathan Stroud already showed his skills in the popular Bartimaeus trilogy, and that smart storytelling is put to work here in a satisfyingly contrarian way.

The story revolves around the runty, pugnacious Halli, a 14-year-old antihero who is coming to grips with the fables that he's heard growing up and learning whether or not those cultural myths actually have any basis in reality--so not only are readers constantly left guessing as to what will happen next, Halli never knows quite what to expect either. For example, he grows up believing that his noble house was founded by the mightiest of 12 heroes. But as soon as he's exposed to the wider world, he learns that every kid in *every* house is taught that their house's founding hero was the greatest.

That's the sort of eye-opening lesson we learn again and again in real life (usually starting in our early teens, no coincidence there), and Stroud uses that relativism to craft a fun, often funny, and cleverly unconventional fantasy story, all without skimping on the genre's requisite pacing and scrapes with danger.

A great read, even if you're not typically a fantasy fan. Check out the trailer to hear Stroud talk more about it:


Elana Johnson said...

Put Jonathan Stroud and fantasy in the same sentence and that's all I need to know. Thanks!

Paul Hughes said...

I am late to the Stroud party! Now I need to go back and check out the Bartimaeus books.