Jonathan Stroud simply is not a fan of innocent protagonists as pure as the newly driven snow. He has little patience for innocents as main characters. No time for guys like Harry Potter or Frodo, who find themselves thrust into dangerous situations that were not of their own making. Give Stroud a nicely corrupt kid or a wildly headstrong hero any day of the week. Having burst upon the juvenile writing scene with his breathtaking Bartimaeus trilogy, Stroud now scales himself back a little with a slightly more conservative fantasy going by the name "Heroes of the Valley". Masquerading as yet another boy-shepherd-learns-how-the-world-really-works tale, Stroud's newest book may seem to tread a well worn path but in fact it has all the zip, panache, and intelligence you would expect of the man who made footnotes a literary technique (outside of "Pale Fire" and "Jonathan Strange", of course . . .). It has a slow start, but stick with "Heroes of the Valley" and you will discover a smart bit of storytelling that knows how to suck in its readership.
Halli has grown up hearing the stories. How the heroes of the Houses in the valley drove back the horrible monstrous Trows and that's why no one can ever leave the valley again. Halli yearns for those old days, when violence and fighting could solve problems, particularly since in this current world Halli stands out. He is rough and short and ugly and prone to getting into trouble. Pranks come to him easily, but when a particularly keen one leads to the death of someone he loves, Halli vows to avenge the murder. Yet the boy has no idea what lies in store for him, or just how important it will be to remember those old stories and find out the truth (and lies) behind them.
Trying to compare "Heroes" to other children's books isn't difficult, but I did find that it broke certain rules. Like Taran from the Prydain Chronicles), Halli yearns for battle and glory. As such, the first half of this book takes on a distinctly Don Quixote flavor, with Halli in both the role as the deluded would-be knight and his much put upon squire. Halli meets odd characters, goes against all rhyme, reason, and sense and then only finds himself facing the truth about the world around him when given exactly the thing he has been searching for. This is a quest novel where the quest keeps changing. If it reminded me of anything it was of the smart fantasy writing of Nancy Farmer in her "The Sea of Trolls". But it's hard to find anyone to compare to the hero in this book.
Generally as heroes go, usually they can at least fight a little bit. But Halli, aside from being one of the uglier bandy-legged protagonists out there, is both short and incapable of fighting someone. To his credit, he's pretty good at escaping from death (though in truth a lot of that is probably due to the fact that swords pass a fair foot above his head half the time). But how many books have you read where the hero's short legs prevented him from making a clean escape time and time again? It's kind of novel, really.
And now let's talk about female characters a bit, shall we? For all that Stroud likes his boys flawed and wretched, he does a darn good girl. This may not sound too remarkable. Many a fantasy writer for kids knows how to write strong women characters. But I would go so far as to say that male fantasy writers for kids almost always make those same girls humorless. Not always (a tip of the hat to Neil Gaiman here) but more often than I would like. Not Stroud, though. No sir, when you first meet Aud she is falling out of trees, laughing, and mocking Halli in a truly humorous fashion when his ridiculousness comes to be too much. Aud is the daughter of one of the lords from another House. She has all the spunk and verve you would expect, but that's not extraordinary. I was far more interested in how funny she could be. It's a trait that serves her well in the tale.
There is an interesting lack of religion or spirituality to this book's world, which is probably a necessity for many a children's author ("Fly by Night" aside). It also makes one of the book's central themes stand out without raising too much controversy. I doubt very much that you will hear that a parent has attempted to ban "Heroes of the Valley" because the story argues vehemently against a blind allegiance to past beliefs and ideas. The slow reveal of the truth behind the stories Halli has loved for so long grows more delicious as the tale carries on. There is much to be said here about cultural traditions and a society that fails to question its own rules from time to time. Consider Halli the Harry Beaton of his own private Brigadoon.
The writing itself proves to be similar to the Bartimaeus books, even if the story is so vastly different. Stroud excels at ending a chapter on a tense note. There's a wonderful moment when Halli leaves a sick man's bedside, convinced that the fellow (who wants to kill him) is helpless. Then, in the dimming light, all Halli hears is the sound of a mattress that has just had a weight removed from it. Coo. Aside from basic competencies in producing a strong plot, metaphor, storyline, and smattering of character development, Stroud is also keen in including small amusing asides. At one point Aud and Halli are discussing various Heroes from he past and she makes a reference to how one of them came home with some outlaws' heads in a little string bag. Halli says, "A little string bag? . . . Sounds a bit girly. Who did that? Arne?" Aud replies, "No, no, I think it was Gest, or one of the other rubbish ones." I don't know why but I love that little throwaway scene. These two characters are in the midst of a serious conversation and Stroud has the wherewithal to include a dash of humor. It's a pretty British move, and more than welcome considering the circumstances.
I run a homeschooler bookgroup, and my kids recently complained to me about fantasy novels that are parts of a series. For once they wanted to read something that could stand on its own. Now insofar as I can tell, "Heroes of the Valley" isn't slapping large signs that say "VOLUME ONE" all over its covers. And when you read the book it certainly remains self-contained, without any difficulty. But that ending . . . oh, don't worry. No spoiler alerts here. I won't say a thing except that it certainly wouldn't be impossible if Stroud felt inclined to go about making a sequel or two in his spare time. There certainly is more story to tell, and I for one would be first in line to buy if he felt inclined to carry on.
I was a little perturbed to find that one of the book's major villains takes his leave of this earth off-screen, so to speak. Seemed a bit unsporting of Stroud. And there is also the little matter of the book's beginning being so slow. My advice is to encourage child readers to strive ever on. In fact, by the end of the story you will find yourself hard pressed to pry the title from well-clenched hands. I came within an inch of missing my subway stop the other day because I had had the misfortune to be reading Chapter 26 at the wrong time. All that aside, this is a fine frisky novel. A book that comes to a full boil about 3/4ths of the way in and is worth the wait. If you have ever wanted a fantasy for kids that shows a character learning and growing, this is one of the best examples I've found to date. Worth the reading. Extremely enjoyable.