The Strange Maid by Tessa Gratton (summary from Goodreads.com):
Fans of Neil Gaiman, Holly Black, and Maggie Stiefvater will embrace the richly drawn, Norse-influenced alternate world of the United States of Asgard, where cell phones, rock bands, and evangelical preachers coexist with dragon slaying, rune casting, and sword training in schools. Where the president runs the country alongside a council of Valkyries, gods walk the red carpet with Hollywood starlets, and the U.S. military has a special battalion dedicated to eradicating Rocky Mountain trolls.
Signy Valborn was seven years old when she climbed the New World Tree and met Odin Alfather, who declared that if she could solve a single riddle, he would make her one of his Valkyrie. For ten years Signy has trained in the arts of war, politics, and leadership, never dreaming that a Greater Mountain Troll might hold the answer to the riddle, but that’s exactly what Ned the Spiritless promises her. A mysterious troll hunter who talks in riddles and ancient poetry, Ned is a hard man to trust. Unfortunately, Signy is running out of time. Accompanied by an outcast berserker named Soren Bearstar, she and Ned take off across the ice sheets of Canadia to hunt the mother of trolls and claim Signy’s destiny.
My Thoughts on THE STRANGE MAID and an interview with author Tessa Gratton:
Full disclosure: I’ve been reading Tessa’s prose since 2008. I’m a huge fan. I had the pleasure of listening to her recite a few pages from Beowulf in Old English. The memory still gives me elf-kisses. As an English Literature major, Beowulf was one of my favorite projects. Grendel by the late great John Gardner is one of my favorite books. Both play a part in this sweeping tale. Norse mythology, monsters, love, and layers abound in THE STRANGE MAID, the second book in the United States of Asgard series.
What is truth? Is truth the words we write or say, or is it the meaning behind those words? Is it both? Is it neither? Signy Valborn can see a rune in another’s eye and know their truth. But these runes change, just as our truths change given the situation we find ourselves in. Signy’s given a riddle from Odin: The Valkyrie of the Tree will prove herself with a stone heart. After years of trying to figure out what it means, she meets Ned ‘the Spiritless’ Unferth who tells her he knows the answer. In his eye she reads Truth, while in her own she reads several different runes.
Ned is key to helping Signy both figure out the riddle, but also all the meanings of the runes. Even the one given to her in the form of a scar on her palm has layered meanings. The fact that Signy not only needs the help of others but asks for it, makes her a very realistic character. Her thirst for battle and madness in a world that’s tamped down those ideals into politics and order seemed perfectly logical. (Maybe I’m more than a little mad myself.) The relationship between Signy and Ned was a slow, believable burn. And the riddle is resolved in a beautiful and unique way that left me very satisfied. Although, I’d love to see another trilogy set in this world.
“… the troll mother’s marble skin captures all the dying light, and her shifting muscles are a kaleidoscope of color, like the northern lights dancing against her stone flesh.”
Though the entire story stands-alone from THE LOST SUN, several characters visit the pages of both. As a reader, I’m always fascinated to see how characters we loved in one book are perceived by other characters in a new book (or point-of-view). It plays on the theme of truth. Your truth is not mine. Your perception is not mine. So, what is truth?
Wouldn’t it be great if we all had a destiny to follow, no matter how difficult it was to tease out the riddle of it? Maybe that’s exactly what we’re doing.
What was the seed idea/scene that set this story in motion for you as the author?
I was in grad school and took a class in Old English. As I fell farther into the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons and their neighbors the Vikings, I realized how much modern US culture still shares with them. War and religion and politics are still intertwined just like in Viking and A-S literature. So for this series, it was a thematic spark, it was a desire to create an alternate world where I could play with my thoughts and feelings about American Warrior Culture in particular.
You studied Beowulf—and even translated your own version— at university, but outside of required reading for study, how much research did you do to create the United States of Asgard?
Oh, for another guest post I counted 43 books I bought specifically for USAsgard research over the past 5 years. I’ve read at least parts of all of those books, and most of most of them. I did some traveling around the USA, too, though most of my location inspiration came from family road trips when I was a kid.
If you lived in the United States of Asgard, which god/goddess would you belong to and why?
Odin, unfortunately. 😉 He’s the god of poetry and sacrifice, in addition to having a fluid sexuality and a violent streak. It’s not a coincidence most of the USAsgard stories I’ve told revolve in some way around Odinists. I’m writing about those themes because I have so many questions about them myself. As a writer, the link between creation and violence really fascinates me.
THE STRANGE MAID is the both the prequel and the sequel to THE LOST SUN (2013) with a completely new main character, Signy Valborn. Why did you choose to structure your trilogy this way?
I never intended for this to be a trilogy. Originally I was writing short stories in this world for my story blog (www.merryfates.com), then the story that became THE LOST SUN was born, and it truly functions as a stand alone novel because I didn’t know if I’d write more. When I decided to expand, I imagined a 5 book arc. For a lot of reasons that didn’t happen. THE STRANGE MAID was always book 2, and what will be Book 3 used to be pieces of book 5. I took my ideas for the middle books and am writing novellas using those ideas and characters.
Basically: I am a messy writer. I go where the story leads me, and in the case of THE STRANGE MAID, that was a sprawling timeline that forced the book to be both prequel and sequel.
One of my favorite Songs of New Asgard short stories is Date with a Dragon-Slayer.
“This infinitely exciting tale’s twist and turns highlight the characters’ missions as they decide which identity to choose: hero, martyr, or villain.” (School Library Journal) What are you working on now?
I love that SLJ review! Thanks for quoting it. 😀
Right now I’m working on a bunch of things. I’ve drafted what I hope will be my next novel (a stand alone dark fantasy), so I’m writing some novellas in the USAsgard world, and two other secret novels. ONWARD AND UPWARD!
Thank you so much, Tessa, for letting me take a peek at your process! Tessa is also the author of BLOOD MAGIC, the novella CROW MAGIC, and THE BLOOD KEEPER. If you enjoy love, family, and fate, then you should definitely check them out!
* I received an eARC from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.