The good thing about fantasy is that it is a genre that can be incredibly broad. For example, Amy Harmon’s First Girl Child is a book that perhaps deals more with mythology than it does true magic. This book explores the realm of Norse mythology and rune magic, as well as human nature and what it means to have hope.
This book follows Bayr of Saylok, who is the unacknowledged son of a powerful chieftain of one of these six clans. His mother cursed the land at his birth to have no more daughters, and Bayr was meant to be the hope of Saylok, blessed with strength. Then, a supposed miracle: a girl child is born. Bayr becomes Alba’s watcher, her guardian against a world that would seek to manipulate and use the first girl child born in nearly twenty years. But Bayr belongs to the Temple, not to the clans, and his first priority is to protect Alba. This story follows Bayr’s journey from infant to grown man ready to take on Saylok for the sake of one beloved person. He may end up saving them all.
First Girl Child is an impressive display of culture woven into a story. This book is heavily built upon Norse society, during the times of the vikings when raiding and battle were foremost in their culture. The people of Saylok worship the Norse gods as well, following Thor and Freya, Odin and Loki and seeking their hope from rune magic drawn from the blood. However, there is also a measure of realism in this alternate location in history, as this book draws on historical detail and cultural reality to create this mythical world. As a fantasy novel, there is a distinct lack of magical creatures such as dragons or elves, but there is also a measure of magic in the runes. The fact that this book is more mythological and historical, though, does not lessen its impact and make the fantastical elements any lesser.
I found the characters of this book to be incredibly realistic. There were character traits displayed by many of the main characters that one finds in reality, often in such extreme forms: anger, desire for revenge, fear, uncertainty, love, compassion, dispassion and more. Where sometimes you can find caricatures of personality traits in order to emphasise the balance between good and evil, I think this book does a grand job of weaving both admirable and questionable traits into each character. The “good guys” are sympathetic, not because they are inherently good, but because they are flawed. The “villains” are trying to do their best in a world that is both dangerous and uncertain. Oh, and yes, they are villanous also.
I also liked the fact that Bayr was meant to be blessed with this incredible strength, and to be the hope of Saylok, but that he preferred much of the time to be on his own or with Alba. He was tongue-tied and slow of speech, so he did not talk. He knew his strength, but couldn’t argue back, so he didn’t. I think that was quite endearing and made Bayr a more likeable character than some of the strongmen types who occasionally serve as the chosen heros of a people. This changed a little as the end of the novel grew closer, since circumstance required that Bayr take a slightly different role. I think the fact that he took that role made sense but made Bayr a little less likeable and a little more stereotypical hero. Though, there were definitely other redeemable character traits that kept Bayr as one of my favourites.
Sometimes, stories that span a good twenty or more years can be a bit slow. There is a good deal of growing to do, after all. This story managed to avoid feeling like it was too slow by involving a range of characters into the situation. There were the priests at the temple, there were the various chieftains of the six clans, there were other women caught in difficult situations due to the lack of daughters being born. When the story wasn’t following the immediate struggles of Bayr, it was exploring these different angles and doing it well. This allowed the story to expand beyond a normal chosen-hero story and examine such things as religious belief, politics in difficult times, even the occasional tending of sheep. Again, all of this did not make the story feel as though it was dragging; instead, everything felt more real, more difficult, even more important.
My main critique for this story is that the ending is rather obvious. As a reader, you know precisely what is going to happen at the end of the book by the end of chapter one. Once you get to the ending, you nod and say, “yes, I knew this was going to happen.” This is a little annoying, since I think there was a bit of room to manoeuvre the story so that it wouldn’t be quite so obvious. However, I still think that the ending was a good one, if predictable. The more entertaining part was definitely reading up to the ending and learning all of the pieces that went into the final struggle. It was almost like appreciating the journey more than the destination.
First Girl Child is a fascinating exploration of what it means to be human during difficult times. It does this by means of a boy named Bayr who is the source of his mother’s curse and also its end. This is a very good exploration of Norse mythology and a very realistic depiction of history within the context of fantasy. In short, this novel is a grand time and I would say to anyone interested in history or mythology or even just people: give it a read.