Reviewed by Agnes Broome and Nichola Smalley in SBR 2012:2
Review Section: Young Adult Fiction
Reviewed with Maria Turtschaninoff's Underfors
Nichola Smalley: Turtschaninoff ’s first novel Arra tells the bittersweet tale of its eponymous heroine. Arra has never spoken a word, but has learnt to recognise and sing all the songs of the trees and the river. We follow her on her journey from the lonely forest village of Simora where she was born, to the bustling port town of Lavora. With her shy manner and strange, powerful gifts, she is ill-treated in her new home. She finds solace at the loom on which she begins to weave tapestries that enchant the whole town, including its royal family. But every time she finds a measure of happiness, she is thwarted by her family’s distrust. And the worst is yet to come. Soon Lavora is threatened by a neighbouring kingdom and Arra must learn to harness her powers in time to save her people and the man she loves.
Agnes Broome: Underfors is urban fantasy with a distinctly Nordic flavour. It revolves around fifteen-year-old Alva, who one day starts receiving unsettling messages urging her to ‘remember’ something that remains stubbornly beyond her grasp. Then the enigmatic stranger Nide appears, revealing that Alva is in fact Umbra, heir to the long-empty throne of Underfors, a mysterious land that lies beneath Helsinki (‘Helsingfors’ in Swedish, hence the book’s title) where the creatures of Nordic folklore have been forced to seek refuge from humankind. Alva/Umbra is the sole survivor of a troll rebellion, hidden in the world of men for her own safety. Is it time to return to claim her throne? Who is Nide and what are his intentions? Who sent the mysterious warnings? And what will happen to Joel, the boy who would follow Alva anywhere, even into the dark chasm of Underfors?
NS: Let me start off by saying that I loved these books; I found them rich, imaginative and exciting.
AB: I agree; they were also very different - each in its own way a striking and unusual novel that stands out among the young adult fiction I’ve read in recent years.
AB: I think the thing I liked best about Arra was the portrayal of a strong and atypical heroine, who manages to turn her vulnerability and openness into strength – and who needs this unusual source of strength to save her prince and win the kingdom in true, if gender subverted, fairytale style. It was also really interesting reading a novel that gave voice to someone who doesn’t speak.
NS: The thing I reacted to most strongly was the vividness of the sensory elements. The images Arra wove, and her connection with the ‘songs’ of the things around her - they were all so brilliantly evoked. I found it really affecting, and those images have stayed with me. It’s the most memorable book I’ve read recently.
AB: I was intrigued, though, as to why Turtschaninoff divided the book into three parts so distinct in style and structure. It seemed almost to impair the narrative.
NS: Yes. And on a related note, part of me kept thinking - hang on, we were in some Nordic forest, now it seems Mediterranean, surely it’s not the same country! I don’t read much fantasy, so I had to remind myself occasionally that it didn’t have to make sense in real terms.
AB: For me, the fantasy aspect of it was all right, but the overly poetic style grated sometimes. I felt that the grandness of the mystery and beauty was forced on me too avidly. Less feeling could sometimes have been more.
NS: Yes, I noticed that in both Arra and Underfors. Speaking of which: what did you think of Underfors?
AB: I liked it even more than Arra. I thought it was a really good example of the urban fantasy genre for young adults. I particularly enjoyed Turtschaninoff’s use of Nordic folklore for her supernatural elements; it is remarkable how rarely this is done and therefore all the more welcome as an alternative to the standard high fantasy cast of elves and so on.
NS: That was charming, you’re right. I quite liked the way that the characters’ personalities were portrayed in all their banality as well - for instance Nide being really petulant and sulky – and there were some great comic elements that I really enjoyed. But I didn’t like it as much as Arra, I felt it relied too much on the urban/fantasy mix that is currently very popular in teen fiction. Also, despite the genuine tension of the narrative, there were lots of terribly convenient plot devices and at times it all felt a bit cheesy.
AB: I have to agree with you on the cheese factor … maybe this is the fourteen year old in me speaking, but I kind of liked it!
AB: And I think the urban/fantasy mix is very engaging. The idea that fantastical things coexist with us and that there is another reality underneath ours – literally so in Underfors – never fails to fascinate.
AB: …and I also think the love triangle between the three main characters makes Underfors stand out of the crowd; it is really quite unconventional and especially if we disregard the unsatisfying ending.
NS: Ah, we wouldn’t want to spoil it now, would we?!
NS: But it’s true, the unusual themes were dealt with very deftly. That’s the case throughout the novel. At one point the typography actually made me jump!
AB: On the whole, I think the few things I object to now I would have had no problem with in my teens. Indeed, the ending of Underfors and the grandiose emotion of Arra would probably have seemed especially appealing.
NS: Haha, yes, I think Turtschaninoff knows her audience very well.
AB: She is really one to watch; the quality of Arra and Underfors, which are both imaginative and superbly written, clearly shows that Turtschaninoff is capable of greatness. Her next book, Anaché, will be published in Swedish later this year.
NS: I can’t wait to read more.