The Sea of Trolls by Nancy FarmerRobin: This is a story set long ago, in Viking times. It begins on the Northumbria Coast where the Northmen are having a glorious time sailing up and down raiding villages. But the book takes the less exhilarating view of one of the villagers, Jack, an apprentice bard, who is seized along with his adorable little sister and taken aboard a longship. Jack has acquired some magical skill from his bard, who has also told him about the trolls, or Jotuns, who live in the far north: “Most are quite pleasant, although they take getting used to. The ones you have to watch out for are the half-trolls. There’s no describing how nasty they can be. Or deceitful. They’re shape-shifters, and when they appear human, they’re so beautiful that you can’t think of a single sensible thing around them.”

The Northmen have much the same opinion. Although the trolls once hunted humans who were regarded as “two-legged deer”, they are now more restrained and only eat humans after a fair(ish) fight. On the whole they are honest and decent, although stupid and very ugly. But half-trolls are a different story. Perhaps because of being shape-shifters, they have no hold on reality and hate everything. Fortunately they cannot read minds, unlike the full-blooded trolls.

The king of the particular Northmen who capture Jack and Lucy happens to be married to a half-troll, Queen Frith, who is indeed both beautiful and terrible. Regrettably, Jack accidentally works a spell which infuriates the queen and is sent on a quest to Mimir’s well, to gain the knowledge to reverse it. The well is in troll country, Jotunheim, where everything is bigger and nastier.

It is a fair way into the book (chapter 32 of 43) before Jack meets his first Jotun – and promptly faints at seeing “a creature from his deepest and worst nightmares.” However, even sensitive humans are resilient, and Jack soon gets used to the unnerving but surprisingly hospitable trolls. They really don’t seem so stupid, either. He hears something of their history, how they walked across the frozen sea when their island country Utgard was destroyed, eventually reaching Jotunheim on whale-back. Their queen, Glamdis, has a harem of sixteen louts (male trolls) but also sometimes takes a fancy to a human, like the human father of Frith. However, Jotuns also have a dislike of half-trolls; Frith’s half-sister says that the children of troll/human and elf/human unions belong nowhere, always torn between worlds.

Elves, by the way, are only mentioned a couple of times, but appear prominently in the sequel The Land of the Silver Apples.

Columbine: I especially enjoyed Jack’s use of magic. Taught by the Bard, he becomes aware of the “life-force” in all things and draws on it to perform deeds like raising fog and lighting fires. It is very respectful of nature.