Reviewed by Alex Fleming in SBR 2017:1
Review Section: Fiction for Children and Young People
In this first instalment in the Idijärvi Trilogy, Charlotte Cederlund blends Sami mythology with YA fantasy to create a Nordic coming-of-age novel set under the glow of the Northern Lights.
Following the death of her father, 16-year-old Áili has no choice but to leave her home in southern Sweden and move in with her maternal grandfather in Idijärvi, a Sami village tucked away in the arctic north. She is met there by cold both physical and metaphorical: her grandfather seems more interested in drinking than spending time with his estranged granddaughter, and, with no knowledge of the language or culture of her maternal forefathers, Áili is treated with distrust by many of her fellow villagers.
But this isn’t all Áili has to worry about. Strange things are happening around her: animals seem to flock to her, and she is overwhelmed by the sensations of forces and energies that others can’t feel. She is, as it turns out, a noaidi, a Sami shaman and mediator between the human and spirit world. Not only this, she is also the last line of defence against long-dormant evil forces that are now beginning to stir in the village. With only her great- grandmother Ráijá and new friend Olivia for support, she must figure out how to harness her raw magical powers in time to prevent mass destruction – all the while navigating the difficulties of being an orphaned teenage outsider in a new home.
Reading the book, parallels with some of the juggernauts of the YA world come thick and fast; swap Harry Potter’s magic for Sami shamanism and Hogwarts for Idijärvi village and you have a very crude skeleton of Middagsmörker. However, Cederlund’s work holds its own in this company, and her treatment of real mythologies and history adds another dimension to the novel.
Cederlund weaves Sami culture and language into the novel adeptly, and she doesn’t shy away from exploring the historic – and ongoing – oppression experienced by the Sami people in Sweden. This is all presented in a very accessible way; Áili is just as new to all of this as we are, so it would require very little – if any – framing for readers outside of Sweden.
The novel draws you in quickly, and it is hard not to warm to Áili, who is both sympathetic and relatable. Her tone is engaging and chatty, and she has a knack for sharp and knowing asides that cut through any of the novel’s more formulaic ‘coming-of-age’ moments. The positive and supportive relationships between Áili, Ráijá and Olivia really anchor the novel, with cosy breaks for cinnamon buns providing respite from the pacey, otherworldly action. There is also something satisfying about the focus on girls figuring things out for themselves here; let down and underestimated by their male guardians and role models, Áili and Olivia are forced to navigate this world of magic almost entirely on their own, and they do it well.
Cederlund’s debut has been well received by critics and readers alike, and it is easy to see why: smart, moving and gripping in equal measure, the book is both well-paced and well-pitched. Cederlund writes with poise,successfully housing a number of big themes and ideas in this novel without it ever feeling overcrowded. A sequel follows in January 2017, and it will be exciting to see where she takes the next instalments.This feels like a writer with a lot up her sleeve.