Author: Adrienne Young
Genre: YA fantasy
Edition: Advanced FC
Rating: 4 stars
TWs: Violence, domestic abuse, gore, blood, on-page death
For as long as she can remember, Tova has lived among the Svell, the people who found her washed ashore as a child and use her for her gift as a Truthtongue. Her own home and clan are long-faded memories, but the sacred symbols and staves inked over every inch of her skin mark her as one who can cast the rune stones and see into the future. She has found a fragile place among those who fear her, but when two clans to the east bury their age-old blood feud and join together as one, her world is dangerously close to collapse.
For the first time in generations, the leaders of the Svell are divided. Should they maintain peace or go to war with the allied clans to protect their newfound power? And when their chieftain looks to Tova to cast the stones, she sets into motion a series of events that will not only change the landscape of the mainland forever but will give her something she believed she could never have again–a home.
Thanks to Titan for sending me an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way affects my opinion of the book.
The Girl the Sea Gave Back is an enigmatic, gritty YA fantasy inspired by Viking folklore. It’s dark, political, and packs more force than a swinging axe.
This book is a companion novel to Sky in the Deep, set a decade after the first book in the same world. I hadn’t read SITD when I picked up The Girl the Sea Gave Back, but I’d heard you didn’t need to have read the first book to read the second.
And whoever imbued me with that piece of wisdom was right. The story is self-contained and completely enticing.
Some of the characters will be familiar to those who have read Sky in the Deep, but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything because I hadn’t read the companion novel, and I really liked that.
The world is central to the plot, and Adrienne Young adeptly builds a picture of a cold, wintry setting where the land can work against you as much as it can be your home.
There were some scenes that made me feel a physical coldness just from the author’s wonderfully bleak descriptions. There’s a scene when Tova comes out of the water that genuinely made me want to put a sweater on. And it was 22°C outside when I was reading.
Other details in the characters’ clothing and weaponry brought the story into sharp focus, adding authenticity, and suggesting a lot of research went into this book.
Our main characters Tova and Halvard inhabit very different worlds, but are linked by a thread of fate. Halvard is in line to become the next leader of the Nadhir and is surrounded by people who love him and care about him. The whole atmosphere in the clan is more uplifting and kind than the Svell tribe, who are the rivals of the Nadhir.
Tova, in comparison, is something of a prisoner among the Svell. She lives in fear that the leaders will hurt or kill her if she stops being useful to them, so uses her gift to help them see what the future holds for the tribe. She’s manipulated by Jorrund, the only person who treats her with kindness, and is treated with suspicion and open animosity by almost everyone else.
I felt sorry for Tova because she spends most of the book drawing the short straw. She’s mistreated and mistrusted, and her ability to cast the stones of fate ends up becoming a burden to her rather than a gift.
Halvard is warm and caring, and his desire to protect is in the foreground of his every action. By contrast, I got very little from Tova in terms of personality. She’s quiet, cautious, and unendingly serious. Her mistreatment has led her to be reserved, but she has so many questions about her past that I felt myself wanting to leap into the book and answer them for her.
When Tova and Halvard meet, there’s an instant connection. I enjoyed the way this scene was written, but I wanted more from their relationship. They only seem to scratch the surface of what they mean to each other before the book ends, so I’m hoping there’ll be another book focusing on them.
One of my favourite aspects of this book was Halvard’s relationship with his family and friends. Their close-knit bond really comes alive on-page and some characters from Sky in the Deep return to play a part in his training to one day become leader.
The only thing that I think could have improved this book was more diversity. You could argue that Viking culture was pretty white and straight (although history suggests this isn’t entirely accurate), but that doesn’t mean that a fantasy retelling needs to be.
There’s plenty of space for the introduction of queer and POC characters, but most of the couples seemed to be paired off with heterosexual partners, and there weren’t many non-white characters that I could find in the story.
Plot and pacing
The premise of the plot is straightforward and linear; two clans are heading to an inevitable war with one another, but politics and supernatural powers add more intensity into the mix.
Adrienne Young builds tension brilliantly in throughout the book, imbuing it into almost every scene. I found myself simultaneously eager to find out who was going to win the final showdown and dreading it in case characters I liked died.
The pacing is slower in the character-building scenes, but gradually builds to the final fight scenes. The brevity of the book means that the pacing never really slows too much and the characters are constantly moving.
Overall, I relished the tension and the drama of this book, and I thought the story’s brevity served to heighten the suspense. The battles were brutal, but I liked Tova and Halvard’s shared tenacity. I’ll probably pick up Sky in the Deep at some point because of how much I enjoyed this novel, and hopefully it’ll have the same intensity and political pressures that The Girl the Sea Gave Back does.