Monday, August 12, 2019

The Gorm Is Rising: The Beasts of GrimHeart (Longburrow) by Kieran Larwood

Back in the first days, it is said, the goddesses Estra and Nixha banished Gormalech the World Eater underground and set about filling the place with life (and death, because that was Nixha's job).

They chose rabbits to run the world, walking and talking as the Ancients before them once had. They gave them fire and shelter, even twelve magic Gifts. But something was missing.

Estra realized that living is nothing without the power to think, talk, and sing and to pass on those thoughts and ideas. Life, the goddess thought,
is one big story, and she needed someone to tell it.

But the Old Bard is dead and his pyre has been lit, and the bard and his apprentice Rue have been taken prisoner by the Bonedancers who will sacrifice him to their pit beast for, as he explains to Rue, "telling the wrong story to the wrong people."

The Bonedancers of Spinestone are displeased that he has told a tale about them, but by the gift of his words, the bard gets them to agree that he will tell the whole tale and let them judge if his words are true.
"Off we go," says the bard. His eyes are shining bright green.

And so the bard seats himself in front of the pit and begins to to tell the tale he knows is true.

Once an aimless and lazy little rabbit, Young Podkin One-Ear with his sister Paz have twice put down the dark forces of Gorm, the worshipers of the Gormleach who rule by the power of iron and are driven to consume the creation. Avenging their father's death, they have won victories and gained the Gifts of the copper dagger Starclaw that cuts through all but iron, the silver brooch Moonfyre that enables it wearer to hide in moonshadows, and the hammer Surestrike which can forge Gorm-piercing weapens,, and Aifew, the sickle that reveals poison. But now word comes from warrens near the edge of the Grimheart forest that the Gorm are coming, with a fearsome armored horde and giant tree-shredding iron beasts, to destroy the entire forest and slaughter the inhabitants of every warren.

Podkin and Paz, with their baby brother Pook, flee deeper into the forest where they have heard they may find another of the Gifts needed to destroy the Gorm. There they meet Mo Grim and the Wardens and the chief of the giant rabbit Wardens and receive Bloodcrun, the twisted crown that enables the wearer to read minds. Wearing Bloodcrun, Podkin One-Ear is able to speak with the giant saber wolves of the deep forest, and astride the alpha wolf Truefang, rides back to rally all the warrens for a final stand against the encroaching Gorm army.

The giant wolves are ravenous fighters, and the assembled warrens' warriors fight courageously, but their weapons are weak against the iron-clad Gorm and their machines. Then the war council determines that their only hope is Soulshot, in the possession of Pokkin's uncle, Hennic, the bow that never misses its target and the three arrows forged by Surestrike to kill Scramashank, the leader of the Gorm. But Podkin is too young to draw Soulshot. The blind warrior Crom is chosen to pull the bow, and Podkin, wearing Blodcrun, must meld his mind with Crom's strength to guide the last arrow to Scramashank's head.
"I see him, Crom!" Podkin shouted. "Draw now! NOW!

Soulshot creaked as Crom heaved the string back to his ear.

Quickly Podkin summoned up every memory he had. Scramashank drawing his sword to kill his father, all those memories, all that terror overcome--Podkin let it flood through him... until he reached out a finger and touched the taught bowstring.

In that moment he felt the bow leap. Suddenly it knew its target. He leaned down to Crom's ear.


It is this story that is told by the bard to the Bonedancers, so well told that he and Rue depart safely into the wood to continue to tell their story of how Podkin saved them all. Story, as we see, must always be told, and as readers learn at the closing, especially if it is told by the  bard, Pook, younger brother of Podkin.

Since J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, there have been a seeming multitude of fantasy novel series, (viz. Harry Potter) set in invented societies, human, alien, and animal, with a hero or heroine who is forced to lead in the iconic battle of good and evil, often within the medieval settings that Tolkien drew on so so vividly from Britain's ancient history. Few such stories move as naturally and compellingly as this one, short on warfare scenes and long on emotional understanding. Podkin himself is a wonderfully sympathetic hero for young readers, compelled by birth and circumstance and perhaps by prophecy to make himself a leader despite his lack of skill and experience, his own reluctance to lead, and his own very real fears. Unlike many such fantasies with heroes with super powers, this young rabbit, the unlikeliest of heroes, owns no powers of his own, save for the courage to do what has to be done, acquiring instead the Gifts left at the beginning of time. Podkin's sacrifice is all the more appealing and understandable for middle readers who may worry about their own powers and who can only hope and believe, like Podkin, that, despite the Dark that is always rising, the universe bends toward the Good.

Kieran Larwood's forthcoming The Beasts of Grimheart (Longburrow) Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Clarion, 2019), the supposed finale in the Longburrow series, is an accessible read and a good preface for middle graders who may soon move on the classics of this genre waiting for them. Other books in this series, cleverly also set in a frame narrative as bard's tales as the story within a story, are Podkin One-Ear (Longburrow) (see review here) and The Gift of Dark Hollow (Longburrow)

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