Jonathan Stroud is no longer as popular as he used to be, but he remains one of the few automatic-buy authors for me—if he has a new book or series out, I am on it like shit on fly—even though one would say I should have outgrown him long ago. There are still turns of phrases and words from his books that I still use in conversation to this day (e.g. “unmentionables” to refer to one’s privates). When I saw a remaindered copy of Heroes of the Valley at the Big Bad Wolf sale, I bought it without any hesitation, even though it is one of his least popular works. Currently, it boasts a very middling 3.44 out of 5 average score on Goodreads, which is usually a pass for me for most other authors. I’ll just say first that I am glad I didn’t pass this over.
I can see why this novel didn’t do well. After the success of his amazing Bartimaeus trilogy, readers looking to get more of the same would quickly feel betrayed or at least disappointed by Heroes of the Valley. Bartimaeus is set in a very well-realised dystopian London ruled by corrupt magicians and the books take us as far afield as Prague and Egypt, while Heroes of the Valley is set in a generic no-name fantasy agrarian countryside where all farm boys with destinies originate from (and what more, the entirety of the story took place in titular Valley, which is like if Bilbo Baggins never left the Shire in The Hobbit). While Bartimaeus featured a fascinating system of magic and a taxonomy of demons and spirits that magicians enslave to do their biddings, the world of Heroes of the Valley is mostly devoid of flashy fantasy elements. While Nathaniel is a humourless, self-serious prat in the Bartimaeus books, he is balanced well by the charismatic, hilarious laugh-a-minute djinni, Bartimaeus. Halli Sveinsson who headlines Heroes of the Valley is only marginally more charistmatic than Nathaniel, and he has no Bartimaeus to be his foil.
But I think it is a mistake to dismiss this book. I would argue that this is probably Stroud’s most introspective and intelligent book so far.
Halli Sveinsson is no one’s idea of a fantasy hero. He is a stout, foul-tempered bandy-legged youth who is unremarkable in every way, and half the time, he escapes getting killed only by the virtue of him being a whole head shorter than the aim of his enemies’ blows. He is the second son of one of the twelve landowners that populate the valley. Legend has it that the patriarchs of the valley cleared the region of murderous trows, and after their death, their cairns supposedly guard the boundaries of their land from further trow incursions. There are many rules, laws and taboos within their society that supposedly ensure the perpetuity of this protection—and it leaves the inhabitants of the valley functionally imprisoned for their safety. No one is allowed to bear arms as well, and the great families and landlords settle their disputes legally in moots and councils. This suits Halli poorly. Halli was raised on a diet of stories recounting his family’s founder’s feats of heroism, and he thirsts to prove himself. How does one become a hero if one isn’t allowed to swing a sword, or to leave the valley?
Of course, fans of Stroud’s wry humour will find much to enjoy in this book, even if they are a bit muted. And Aud Arnesson is a treasure, and is probably Stroud’s best (and most charismatic) female character so far. It is a shame that she is missing from large swathes of the story.
Had Heroes of the Valley been a more popular work, it might have invited controversy amongst parents. It don’t know if this was Stroud’s intentions, but this is a book that questions our deepest, most passionately held beliefs: our superstitions, our heroes, and our faith. It teaches that even the people who love us, who mean us well, can mislead us. What if you find out that the truths told to you as a child are not the only versions there are? What if there are twelve different conflicting versions told in twelve different clans in the valley you reside, all self-serving and self-aggrandising? What if one is willing to spill blood over these contradictory stories? Sound familiar?
“It’s true you’re a bit extreme, but you’re not the only one at it. Everyone’s fixated with the tales. Remember Brodir and Hord swapping insults about each other’s heroes during the feast? Say something rude about someone’s Founder and it’s like you’ve struck them in the face. It’s pathetic. And you know what? Deep down it’s all about rules, all about keeping everyone in their place.”
I think if one is unable to appreciate the ambition and meaning behind the story of the Heroes in the Valley, one is simply left holding a seemingly lacklustre fantasy story that feels narrow in both scope and imagination. It is not Stroud’s funnest read, I’ll admit, but it is the book that got me thinking the longest.