Lou Anders' new novel Frostborn is one of those middle-grade fantasy books that you'll buy for your kid, just so you can have an excuse to read it yourself. The highest compliment I can give Frostborn is it gave me Lloyd Alexander flashbacks. Minor spoilers ahead...
Until recently, Anders (no relation) was best known as the editor of Pyr Books, a position he held for nearly a decade. At Pyr, he published a range of stuff from cyberpunk to steampunk, but he seemed to corner the market in gritty sword-and-sorcery books, from authors like James Enge and K.V. Johansen. But Frostborn is something quite different — a sweet coming-of-age tale with just the right amount of peril and self-discovery, and a number of "hell yeah" moments.
Without going into too much detail, Frostborn follows two protagonists who are trying to find their own identities and make their own way in the world. Karn is a nerdy kid whose dad expects him to grow up and run the family farm, but all he cares about is mastering the game of Thrones and Bones, which is sort of like chess except that one side is the defenders and one side is the attackers. Karn longs for adventure and excitement, but also lives for his board game. Until, of course, he gets more excitement than he can handle, and he has to use all of the strategy he's learned from the game to survive.
Meanwhile, Thianna is a half-frost giant, half-human girl who lives in a village full of frost giants. The other kids treat her like a freak because she's only seven feet tall, and she can't beat them at their games by using her strength. So instead, she uses guile and ducks out of their way instead — which only underscores that she's smaller than they are. She keeps insisting that she's a giant, but the other kids point out that "Giants don't move like that." She's not interested in learning about her human mother's heritage, until someone comes looking for a powerful object her dead mother left behind.
The theme of not fitting in is present in both characters, but it's different enough for each of them that they wind up complimenting each other rather than reinforcing. Thianna's status as a mixed-race kid who gets bullied by the other kids is poignant, but it's never overplayed. And Karn's desire to be something other than what his father expects is a much subtler form of identity crisis — you can see the two of them learning from each other pretty much from the moment they meet.
But also, Frostborn is a rollicking adventure, in which there are a ton of villains who pursue and bedevil the main characters. The characters are constantly going from scrape to another, and they generally survive by their wits rather than by luck or strength. The thing that makes these characters admirable is their courage and their resourcefulness, rather than any superpowers or "chosen savior" status, which is refreshing in itself.
At the same time, Anders does a terrific job of making the novel feel fast-paced while still allowing for lots of character-building moments and quieter stretches. It's a tricky challenge, to keep the feeling that the story is rocketing forward while also taking ample time to show the characters bonding and learning from their experiences, and Anders rocks that balance.
The other thing that jumps out at me as praiseworthy in this book is the fantasy worldbuilding. As a Norse fantasy, Frostborn draws on a lot of elements of Scandinavian myth, including trolls, frost giants, wyverns and dragons. But Anders also manages to convey a lot of cultural stuff, about social roles among the humans and frost giants, with a light touch. Partly, he does this by focusing on the culture clash between the two groups. But he also throws a lot of cultural stuff into relief by focusing on people's small foibles and the ways that they stick out from their culture. He also gives enough hints at a long and complicated history in his world, without ever plunking the reader down for a lesson.
Speaking of lessons, the proactive female characters and messages about tolerance for those are who are different are very welcome, but the book never throws up any big signposts to them. And that's one big reason why I wish I'd had this book back when I was gobbling up middle-grade fantasy as a kid — the characters are perfectly well-rounded, including Thianna, and she gets to be just as heroic as Karn in her own way. And the subtle messages about acceptance and learning to value yourself are just perfect.
I mentioned that this book reminded me a bit of Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books, which is high praise. Like Alexander, Anders has a good-natured approach to his characters, casting their flaws and mistakes into relief without seeming to condemn them. In fact, this feels in a lot of ways like an old-fashioned coming-of-age story, one without a lot of angst or serious darkness, but with a great deal of adventure and cameraderie. If you can forgive a slightly pat ending, you'll find Frostborn a delightful read — and you'll definitely want to share it with your kids.