Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer
The year is 793 AD. Jack is the son of Saxon farmers, on the English coast. His younger sister Lucy is the special one–she believes she’s a princess whose real parents will take her home one day–but Jack is the one who’s chosen by village’s Bard as his apprentice. Jack has barely started his apprenticeship and is just starting to catch a glimpse of the mystic powers around him when a Nightmare attacks the bard, and Jack and Lucy are captured by Viking beserkers in a raid on their village.
The two siblings are carried off by Olaf One-Brow and his crew, and taken across the sea to the court of Ivar the Boneless, and his half-troll wife, Queen Firth. Jack attempts to prove his status as a bard, but when his attempts at magic go off-kilter and all of Freya’s hair falls out, she is… unimpressed, to say the least. In fact, she is so unimpressed that Jack finds himself on a quest to the perilous, icy kingdom of the Trolls. In grand questing fashion, he must find Mimir’s Well and drink from it to learn the spell to restore the queen’s hair, or his sister will be sacrificed. It’s just Jack. And Olaf, an uncanny raven, an argumentative female beserker. Jack will need all the help he can get, because there’s a lot between him and the Well. Like trecherous terrain, giant spiders, dragons, and oh, yes, trolls. Lots of trolls.
Farmer follows in the fine tradition of the hero’s journey, with Norse mythology deftly incorporated and spun into unique and engaging fantasy novel. This was a fantastically fun quest story. Jack is a great believable hero, unsure and dreamy to start, and grows to a confident, capable Bard. (Of course, those mystic Bardic powers don’t hurt!) A nicely rounded cast of characters, some strong female characters all around (good and evil both), and enough adventure and derring-do to please the epic fantasy fans, too.
(And from a librarianly standpoint, one of the things I like about this book is that it, like a lot of good fantasy, crosses the age gap. My library’s shelved it in the YA section, but I’ve been recommending this one to both the upper elementary Lord of the Rings and Redwall fans, and older fantasty readers alike.)