Picking out a book for someone else can be a challenging task. Everyone has their personal tastes, and it can be hard to find something that suits that person well. Take me, for example. I love sci-fi, but I couldn’t make it though the sci-fi classic, Dune. Other people love it, but it just wasn’t for me. In this not-so-creatively titled series, “Books I Didn’t Pick”, I’ll be looking at books that were chosen for me, most of which I would probably not pick if left to my own devices. Even so, I try to be open to different writers and genres, hoping to find something new that I enjoy.
For the very first edition of “Books I Didn’t Pick”, we have The First Girl Child by Amy Harmon, which was sent to me as part of a writer’s subscription box.
The First Girl Child was billed as a historical fantasy romance, and I figured that two outta three ain’t bad when it came to genres I was interested in. Reading through it, though, I came to discover that it failed at being any of those things.
Historical fiction isn’t something I got into until I was an adult, but I can appreciate the difficulty of writing it. It needs to feel grounded enough that even if the events and characters never really existed, you believe that they could have happened at some point. As I’m writing this, I recently finished a historical fiction unit for one of my classes, and discovered that I’m very picky about historical fiction that I actually enjoy. It either needs to be from an era I have an interest in, or feature spunky girls going against societal norms. The First Girl Child at least had the former: it’s a story about Vikings!
The First Girl Child takes place on the fictional island of Saylok, home of five fierce Viking tribes. I was here for it: high seas, adventures, shield maidens and fierce warriors. At least, that’s what I wanted to see. I got next to none of that. Viking raids are mentioned in passing, the only female warrior we actually see is almost immediately killed off, and most of the book takes place at the main temple on the island. Instead of seafaring exploits, we get shallow politics that feel like they were lifted from A Song of Ice and Fire without the nuance, or compelling characters to carry it through. Aside from an occasional reference to Odin, there is virtually nothing to separate Saylok’s culture from any other generic Medieval group.
It also bothers me that the author only had the characters pray to Odin or her OC Norse god, Saylok, and completely neglected Freya and the Vanir. The book is centered on the island’s residents being unable to conceive female children, but no one ever has the bright idea to pray to a fertility goddess.
Okay, so the historical fiction element was lacking. Maybe the fantasy aspects would be better? They definitely started out strong. In this world, magic comes from drawing ancient runes, and then activating the runes with blood. In the prologue, Dagmar and his sister Desdemona discover they have “rune blood” after entering a cave with runes carved on the walls. Runes are powerful forms of magic, and Desdemona uses them to curse all of Saylok. She also prophesies that no one but her son will be able to break the curse.
Aside from the set-up, the runes are hardly ever used. Dagmar uses them to pray for protection for Bayr, but they never make a meaningful appearance until the end. Because the runes are underutilized, the resolution felt like a deus ex machina. The book justifies this by saying that rune magic is dangerous, and its secrets are guarded closely. Even so, I’m a bit miffed about the lost potential.
Women were also forbidden from using rune magic. In doing some research for this post, I found that siedh, or a type of Norse magic, was often associated with women rather than men, so there’s another big X in the historical fiction column.
Then last, but not least, comes the romance.
Oh boy, here we go.
I’m not sure how fair it is for me to discuss romance as a genre. I’ve reviewed some romance manga here, but it’s often not something I’ll typically go for. Still, I tried to keep an open mind. Amy Harmon is the author of several romance novels, and she has a following. Thus, I expected the romance between Bayr and Alba to have some of the strongest writing in the book.
The relationship between them just strikes me as rather icky, though. Bayr sees Alba for the first time when she’s an infant and he’s a young child, and immediately says that he loves her. I chose to interpret this as platonic love, because Alba had just been born. It’s not as squicky as, say, Jacob imprinting on Renesmee in Breaking Dawn, but it’s in the same ballpark.
Bayr sees himself as Alba’s protector, and the two have a brother-sister relationship when they’re growing up. Bayr leaves the Temple Mount where they both live when he’s around twelve, and returns years later as and adult man. When he sees Alba again, they are suddenly in love, despite (a) not seeing each other in years and (b) being raised as brother and sister. In fact, Bayr’s lowest point in the book is when he believes Alba to be his biological sister. She isn’t, but it drives the “icky” factor home even more.
Even if I put that aside, I don’t see this as a great romance. There’s no build up; you don’t see them gradually fall in love. They meet, they’re in love, that’s it. Sometimes that’s okay, but we don’t see their relationship grow in any meaningful way. It’s just banal, and what should be the driving force of the book its least interesting aspect.
As far as characters and pacing go…
In my experience, good characters can save a mediocre plot, and vice-versa. I thought the plot itself was fine, though clumsily executed. As far as the characters go…I honestly don’t remember a thing about them. In writing this post, I tried to think of some key traits of each one. Bayr is strong and protective. His uncle, Dagmar, is intelligent and protective. Alba is…demanding of Bayr’s attention? If the only thing I can remember about the heroine of a romance novel is their connection to another character, that’s a problem. Even the antagonist was generically evil in a way that made him neither compelling, nor someone that I loved to hate.
The pacing bugged me. The novel starts with Bayr’s birth, and ends once he (spoiler!) becomes king of Saylok, so it obviously can’t capture every moment of his life in the book’s 400 pages. A lot of Bayr’s life is done in a sort of written montage, with important, specific scenes written out in detail. I think this works well when Bayr’s a kid, but not so much when he’s an adult. Most disappointing for me was when he leaves the Temple Mount where he was raised, and joined his grandfather’s clan. Apart from one scene that depicts his (admittedly badass) initiation into the clan, a lot of his skill and character development during those years is covered in just a few paragraphs. I want to see how he changed from the shy, stammering “Temple Boy” into a leader and warrior, but I never got more than a glance at his journey.
I was obviously pretty disappointed with this book. Even though I have my favorite genres and authors, I like stepping out of my reading comfort zone and trying something new. It can be hit and miss sometimes, and this book was clearly a miss.
I don’t want to end on an entirely negative note, and there were some things I liked about the book. First, despite my complaints, it’s well-written. I may not have cared for the story, but the prose was pretty good. I also think that it started out strong, and the magic system was cool, even if it wasn’t used to its full potential. I also liked the character of Desdemona, despite the fact that she was barely in the story.
In S.R. Ranganathan’s Laws of Library Science, laws 2 and 3 are:
2. Every reader her or his book
3. Every book its reader.
This was not my book, and I was not its reader. But if this sounds like a novel you would enjoy, by all means, check it out! You might be the reader it needs.