Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The British Books Challenge 2011 - Review of West of the Moon by Katherine Langrish

I'm delighted to be reviewing Katherine Langrish's West of the Moon on the third stop of a massive blog tour to celebrate its new incarnation as one gorgeous omnibus volume.  Equally exciting, the publishers have agreed to a


this Friday (4th March), so do come back again and check out the details!

I was a fan of Katherine Langrish's troll trilogy as soon as I started reading it two summers ago, but this revised edition is definitely something special and should bring her many new fans.  For a start (and this is important in getting readers to pick up the book in the first place), the new cover is simply marvellous--icy and enticing, with just a hint of the stark landscapes inside the book.  But of course, one shouldn't judge by appearances.  What I was surprised by (and shouldn't have been, because I know how beautifully Katherine writes), was how well West of the Moon reads as one big book instead of three separate ones--how each part flows smoothly and seamlessly into the next. 

Peer Ulfsson's journey from boy to young man takes him from his father's funeral pyre to the forests of a strange new land.  What happens along the way is a story in the best traditions of Viking saga fantasy with a good dose of fairytale mixed in.  His childhood is plagued with wicked uncles and trolls--Norse folklore is a constant undercurrent running through these books--but this is also a coming-of-age novel.  Peer has to deal with his growing feelings for the beautiful and resourceful Hilde--not always easy when she scorns him as a little boy who looks like a heron, quite unlike the blue-eyed, handsome Arne.  I'm not going to put up any plot spoilers, so you'll have to believe me when I say that the culminating part of West of the Moon, where Peer and Hilde travel to Vinland is a truly breathtaking and original tale of two differing cultures meeting--but also a story of how the past catches up with the present, not always happily or tidily.

What struck me as I read was the quality of the writing and how marvellously Katherine has created the feel of the Viking period.  No horned helmets here, thank goodness, just lots of well-researched small and fascinating details scattering the text like gracenotes. I was also delighted to meet the eccentric Nis again--and wished, as I always do, for a Nithing to grace my own house with its housekeeping skills and its red hat.   If you like Vikings, trolls and adventure, leavened with a good dose of subtle humour, then this is the book for you.  Highly recommended.

Katherine was kind enough to answer my usual


SCC:  How does it feel to go back and look at your books again as you have done for West of the Moon?  Was it a hard process to go back and revise--or was it actually quite enjoyable?

KL:  It felt brilliant. It was the chance every author longs for and rarely gets – the chance to go back over already published work and do it better.

That doesn’t mean the books were awful to start with. My first book, Troll Fell, took me two years to write (I began it in autumn 1999) and another two years of revision, revision and more revision. It’s set in the Viking era, with trolls and other spirits borrowed from Scandinavian folklore, and features both a hero and a heroine, sensitive Peer and confident Hilde. By the time the book was published in 2004, it was a colourful, exciting fantasy, and the best I could possibly do. But of course authors, like everyone else, get better at what we do the longer we go on doing it. By 2010, with four books under my belt, I would occasionally leaf through Troll Fell and wish I hadn’t used quite so many adjectives here – or adverbs there – or written that particular purple passage – or used phrases like ‘…he whispered quietly’. (He was whispering, for heaven’s sake. Obviously he was quiet.)

So I was thrilled when HarperCollins decided to republish the trilogy in one omnibus edition. We knew the three books were a bit too long to publish in one volume without some cuts – but, rather than weeping over this, I welcomed it. I could go back and sort out some of the things I’d been itching to put right! Yay! And another advantage of having all three books in one volume was that I could do away with the explanatory material every author has to include in the early pages of sequels so that new readers (who may not have read the other books) will understand who these characters are, and something of their back-story.

Troll Fell was originally written as a stand-alone. I didn’t know if it would even find a publisher, so there was no point in daydreaming about a trilogy! Then, when HarperCollins asked me for a sequel – and a third after that – I discovered myself writing a trilogy after all. And the books got darker and stronger as I went along. There were threads running through all three – the same characters, obviously, though I added new ones in each book as Peer and Hilde grew older and had more adventures – but also threads of self-discovery, and the longing to travel far away to distant lands. And – of course – romance. It was clear to me even in the first book that Peer was going to fall in love with Hilde. It was a lot less clear that she would feel the same way about him. Indeed, even in Book 1, there’s a handsome fisherman, Arne, who is an obvious rival for Hilde’s affections. The path of true love never did run smooth, and Peer and Hilde have an awful lot to face, and to discover about themselves and others, before they really come to know their own hearts. How lucky I was to be able to follow them for three whole books and discover what happens….

For this new edition, we needed an overall title. West of the Moon was my working title for Troll Blood and all of us – my publisher, agent and I – had a soft spot for it. It seems to express the longing for adventure that Peer and Hilde both feel, as well as hinting at the strong fairytale and fantasy elements of the story.

For me, West of the Moon now works as a complete trilogy, the coming-of-age story of a young man who doesn’t see himself as a hero, who is thoughtful, self-doubting, but also determined and truly courageous. As Hilde says at a terrible moment in Book 3:

“Peer always thinks he isn’t brave. But he is brave. He’s the bravest person I ever met.”

SCC: Thanks,  Katherine.  I couldn't have asked for a better answer!

Katherine's next stop on the tour is:  MOSTLY BOOKS where she'll be tomorrow (2nd March).  Don't forget to come back to Scribble City Central on Friday 4th March for the book giveaway competition!

Her website is: http://www.katherinelangrish.co.uk/
Her blog is: http://www.steelthistles.blogspot.com/ (and I can safely say it's one of the best blogs out there on folklore and fairytale--do go and read the Fairytale Reflections series, which can't be beaten for fascinating author insights into the Otherworld).
Her Twitter handle is: http://twitter.com/KathLangrish


catdownunder said...

Oohh I really have to have the revised version as well!

Unknown said...

Thanks for a fascinating post.

Lynn said...

Wonderful post! Thank you, both.

Katherine Langrish said...

Thankyou for having me here, Lucy - and thanks to Cat, Carole and Lynn for the comments.

Just to clarify, the actual genesis of the first part of WotM (Troll Fell) dates back about thirty years. But I count two years to write it from the moment I picked it up again, after possibly the longest writer's block in history!

Lucy Coats said...

Kath's thanks to Cat, Carole Anne and Lynn seconded by me.

Kath--I guess it just had to bubble away in the cauldron of inspiration for that long! I've got a couple of ideas of my own from almost that long ago. They just come when they're ready to, don't they? PS I hope you like my Nis picture!

Katherine Langrish said...

Oh, the Nis picture is splendid. It ties in with a story about a Nis who felt such affection for a particular white mare, he used to steal extra corn for it - till the day the farmer caught him out. And sadly, in tears, the Nis departed, taking the farmer's luck with him.

Jo Treggiari said...

I can imagine how great it must be for a writer to be able to go back in and revise something that has already been published.
I just finished reading my first book aloud to my 8 year old son and so many passages made me wince. It is a hard fact that if we go back and re-read our work after some time, it will always seem a little naive, a little less polished than whatever we are working on at the moment.
I love the original versions but the writer Kath is today is (I'm sure) an even better-equipped, seasoned writer.
I'll be picking up the new version and can't wait to dive back in.

Blog Design by Imagination Designs all images from the Before the First Snow kit by Lorie Davison