Bonnier Carlsen förlag, 2014.
Reviewed by B. J. Epstein in SBR 2016:2
Review Section: Children's and YA Fiction
Illustrated by Henrik Jonsson
[The Pax series (2014- ) includes Nidstången (The Nithing Pole), Grimmen (The Grim), Mylingen (The Myling), Bjäran (The Tilberi), Gasten (The Ghoul) and Näcken (The Nixie)]
Pax is a new series of genre-bending books of which Näcken (The Water Spirit) is the latest. Though illustrated (by artist Henrik Jonsson), they aren’t exactly graphic novels. They’re aimed at middle-grade readers or young adults, but can be read by anyone, and are rather frighteningly gory at times. They’re ‘urban fantasy’, thrillers, magical, and realist all at once. In other words, they’re complex – in an exciting, challenging way.
Alrik and Viggo are the young brothers at the heart of the series. Their alcoholic mother cannot take care of them, so they’re in the foster care system. They are sent to new foster carers in the town of Mariefred. In the first book, Nidstången, the boys immediately get into trouble in their new school and in the town generally, though they are not by nature troublemakers. They end up being asked to do penance by cleaning the home of two elderly siblings, Estrid and Magnar.
Estrid and Magnar are not just ageing gardeners, as it may first appear. In fact, they are the keepers of a hugely important magical library. Shortly before Alrik and Viggo arrived in town, Estrid read the future in magical cards; it was revealed that evil forces were on their way, and that two ambidextrous knights would come to help defend the library. She and her brother suspect the young boys might be those knights, so they set them a test: the boys are locked into an underground library and tempted into unleashing an evil being from one of the books, which they then have to vanquish if they are to have any chance of surviving. As if that weren’t enough, they next have to find a missing magical staff (the nidstång of the title), which has gone rogue and is trying to turn both their foster mother against them and the boys against each other. This leads on to further adventures, an array of evil creatures, and more mysteries and magic than the boys could ever have hoped for.
If this is all starting to sound like a combination of the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series, mixed with Nordic mythology, and with a large hint of Nordic noir added, then that’s a pretty accurate description. The novels are gripping, suspenseful, creepy, and somewhat addictive (if also a little repetitive, which is a common issue for such series, although young adult readers tend to like that). The supernatural elements are strangely realistic at times, and it’s hard not to look over your shoulder or peek under your bed as you’re reading.
The writing is fast-paced and snappy, which you might expect from Åsa Larsson, who usually writes crime novels for adults, and Ingela Korsell, a teacher who has also written suspense novels for younger readers. The illustrations – several per chapter – heighten the fear factor because Henrik Jonsson does not shy away from detail.
But it isn’t all suspense and magic in this series. Alrik and Viggo also have day-to-day issues to contend with. Besides their mentally ill mother, they also have to cope with bullying, moving schools, trying to fit in, and figuring out who they are and who they want to be. The books are set in the small town of Mariefred. Fred means peace, and the peace that reigns in Mariefred at the start of the series is swiftly disturbed, hence the overarching title of the series, Pax. But the term ‘peace’ also refers to Alrik and Viggo – will they ever find peace in their own lives? In a sense, that’s the main question of the series, and it’s one that readers of all ages can relate to.
There are more volumes to follow beginning with Pestan (The Plague), which will be published in October 2016.