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The Islands of the Blessed

Review

The Islands of the Blessed

Jack, an apprentice bard, and his friend Thorgil, a shield maiden, have survived many adventures together. They have traveled the Hollow Road deep underground. They have visited Jotunheim, land of the trolls. They have even seen Yggdrasil, the world tree. But right now, life seems unbearably quiet in Jack’s Saxon village. That is, until the ringing of a magic bell draws unwanted guests. Now, Jack and Thorgil must venture out again to quell restless spirits and right a wrong done long ago by their friend, Father Severus.

"THE ISLANDS OF THE BLESSED contains the adventure, humor and thought-provoking juxtapositions of THE SEA OF TROLLS and THE LAND OF THE SILVER APPLES. It is fun to read, with lots of great stories and spooky adventures nested inside the larger narrative."

THE ISLANDS OF THE BLESSED is the third installment in Nancy Farmer’s The Sea of Trolls trilogy. Set after the Viking raid of the island monastery of Lindisfarne in 793, her series explores the collision of Christian, Pagan and Norse cosmologies against a background of magic and mythological creatures. The final book also confronts some of the uglier aspects of these belief systems, whether it is the severe penitence Father Severus demands of his fellow Christians or the ceaseless battle that is part of Valhalla, the Northman paradise. As servants of the life force, Jack and Thorgil must put aside their pasts and prejudices to heal the wounds that have been committed in the names of various different deities.

THE ISLANDS OF THE BLESSED continues Nancy Farmer’s strong tradition of research. Some of the most fantastical elements of the story come from genuine historical beliefs and superstitions. Her descriptions of Notland, land of the fin folk, are very much based on lore and legend from the time. The same is true of her account of “the flying venom,” a name for various plagues that afflicted the medieval world. Farmer’s affection for this history, particularly the lore that accompanies Celtic Christianity, is very much present in this book, as is a parallel sense of continued conflict in our own world.

In THE SEA OF TROLLS, Farmer drew comparisons between terrorism and the Northman raids. However, her books have never simplified this conflict into something as basic as good versus evil. The brutality of the Northmen and their berserkers is matched by their loyalty, bravery and courage. This conflict is ever present in the character of Thorgil, who is torn between her bloody Northern past and a present that demands she apprentice along with Jack as a healer. A glimpse of Valhalla and the Valkyries who do little more than serve the male warriors has her thinking twice about whether she still desires a battle death.

Likewise, Jack has many friends among the Northmen, and Farmer’s bawdy (if occasionally disgusting) descriptions of their bragging and burping contests suggest a lust for life that cannot be summed up purely as a love of killing. Still, when Jack gets caught up in Odin’s Wild Hunt, he confronts the god saying, “I serve the life force, I do not believe in a world of endless killing…Your world is only one leaf on the Great Tree…It is already falling from the branch.”

It is very easy to see these three books as exploring different aspects of the colliding worldviews. THE SEA OF TROLLS examines the way various different cultures lived and behaved according to their beliefs and codes of behavior. THE LAND OF THE SILVER APPLES is largely an underworld adventure, addressing the different traditions of descent and putting the travelers in contact with the Elves and other mysterious beings living underground. THE ISLANDS OF THE BLESSED contains differing ideas about Paradise, from the Christian heaven to Valhalla to the Islands of the Blessed themselves. Usually conceived as a kind of paradise where the heroes go to live and learn with the gods, Farmer presents the Islands of the Blessed as a sunny and apple-laden afterworld with a kind of bard school next door.

THE ISLANDS OF THE BLESSED contains the adventure, humor and thought-provoking juxtapositions of THE SEA OF TROLLS and THE LAND OF THE SILVER APPLES. It is fun to read, with lots of great stories and spooky adventures nested inside the larger narrative. However, it works best when read with the other titles and will be most enjoyed by readers who are already familiar with the first two books in the series.

Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood on October 20, 2009

The Islands of the Blessed
by Nancy Farmer

  • Publication Date: October 16, 2012
  • Genres: Adventure, Fantasy, Young Adult 12+
  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
  • ISBN-10: 1416907386
  • ISBN-13: 9781416907381