West of the Moon
Harper Collins 2011
When Peer's father dies, leaving him an orphan, he is distraught to find himself dragged from his Norse village by a pair of cruel and brutish uncles. He is forced into hard manual labour on their mill, working in miserable conditions while sleeping on a barn floor and eating little. This would be bad enough, but the mill is situated next to Troll Fell – a hill so named for the creatures that live beneath it. The mill itself is also full of strange creatures lurking in it's dank corners and weed-strewn mill pond and for a while Peer's only source of comfort is his dog Loki and the Nis, a brownie like creature who despises Peer's uncles and also wishes for a more comfortable existence. As the months pass, however, Peer gets to know Hilde, daughter of a local farmer and life doesn't seem quite so bad – until he realises that his uncles have plans for Hilde's family as well as for Peer himself and so starts adventures that he could have never dreamt of.
Peer is a lovely character. At the start of West of the Moon he's believably confused and bewildered by the situation he finds himself in and his reaction to his uncles is a believable mix of outrage and fear. As the first part of the book progresses he often has to make difficult decisions between what it best for him and what might be best for others – he invariably makes the right choices but it's heartening to see him become slowly less selfless. By the time we move into the middle section of his story, Peer has reached sixteen and is at once becoming honourable and brave while still being deliciously teenage, moody and awkward. His dedication to baby Ran is touching and his inner monologue regarding Hilde is hilarious – it's a lovely mix. In the third, and most far reaching, part of the book Peer is gloriously man-boyish. At seventeen he's finally starting to have confidence in himself and his place in the world and is less likely to question his own validity. He still makes mistakes, and still doesn't always know quite how to handle Hilde but this ties in with his character and makes him all the more readable.
Hilde is quite a different kettle of fish. She's headstrong, prone to rambling on without taking a breath and absolutely sure of herself in seemingly every situation – particularly in her interactions with Peer. Yet she's hard to dislike. Faultlessly kind, her devotion to her family and Peer knows no bounds and her distress/outrage and any cruelty or deceit is touching. While her character changes less than Peer's, I'd be inclined to put this down to the fact that she's a girl and girls tend to change less between thirteen and seventeen than your average boy – or at the very least they perhaps handle the changes with more aplomb. In Hilde's case this would seem to be particularly true as there seems to be little that she can't actually handle. Hilde's family are also all very well written, from Ralf with his itchy feet to practical Gudrun and irrepressible Sigrun and Sigrid. A special mention must go to the Nis – one of the most delightful creations I've come across. His plight during the last third of the book is at once heart-wrenching and triumphant and I could easily have read an entire book featuring just him. Perhaps Katherine Langrish could write Nithing The Great next and to hell with all the human characters...
West of The Moon also has its share of darker characters, who tie in nicely with the way in which it is written. I grew up reading Norse and Celtic fairy tales and the style and content of West of the Moon has clearly been inspired by similar myths. Peer's uncles are monstrous in their brutality while Harald shines with all the crazed glimmer of the true psychopath and Granny Greenteeth becomes the creeping witch from all childhood tales of terror. Add to this a haunting seal woman and the mysterious Draug – a ghost ship of the most sinister nature – and West of The Moon becomes an intoxicating mix of Norse lore and legend. Katherine Langrish has woven all of the above aspects into an intoxicating tale filled with strong characters, beautiful backdrops and sly humour. While I at first was concerned that West of The Moon might be aimed at a slightly younger audience than my usual preference I quickly found myself completely enchanted by the charming prose and haunting story lines – as well as by the lovely friendship between the Peer and Hilde. This is sure to be hit with younger readers, as well as teens but will hopefully be picked up by just as many adults as it provides absolute escapism to a truly magical world.
West of the Moon is available now. Thank you to Harper Collins for providing me with this copy to read and review.