Reviewed by Alex Fleming in SBR 2017:2
Review Section: YA Fiction
Gryningsstjärna is the second instalment in Charlotte Cederlund’s Idijärvi trilogy, a magical YA fantasy that follows teenage misfit Áili in her fight to save her Lapland village from the destructive supernatural forces of the evil Borri noaidi.
One week on from the dramatic showdown that marked the end of Middagsmörker (Polar Night), Gryningsstjärna opens with Áili in a state of emotional turmoil almost as deep as the midwinter darkness that has engulfed Idijärvi. Still reeling from the recent deaths of her father and great-grandmother, Áili is dealt another brutal blow when her grandfather – and only living relative – Egel is gravely injured while drunk driving. As Áili’s best friend Olivia puts it, for Áili, ‘the shit just never ends.’
Be that as it may, the threat of the Borri noaidi’s imminent return leaves Áili with little time to grieve. Aided by the shamans of the Nåjder Council, she must harness her powers and find the Urseiten – the legendary ritual object the Borri noaidi seek in order to consolidate their power – before it is too late. However, mistrustful of the council’s true intentions and all-too aware of the burden she bears, Áili once again resorts to exploring and developing her powers on her own terms. In the end, it is her family history that offers her some of the answers she so desperately needs, but this also brings to light some difficult truths.
Cederlund’s second novel retains many of the strengths of Middagsmörker: once again, we have a compelling, well-paced plot; an engaging, earnest narrator; incisive yet straightforward writing; and a clever blend of what might otherwise appear to be disparate genres and motifs. But, with the stage already set, as it were, with this novel Cederlund has more freedom to explore her subject matter in slightly more depth and detail, from explaining how Áili’s powers work to revealing the true origins of the Urseiten. As a result, to me this novel felt both more purposeful and more rooted than its predecessor did, even when (quite literally) diving into new magical and spiritual dimensions.
Speaking of magic, there is plenty going on here, as Áili explores the full extent of her powers with increasing self-assurance and – at times – recklessness. There is also action of the softer, more mundane kind, with exhilarating dog sledding rides and Christmas celebrations offering escapist – if somewhat ‘Disneyfied’ – entertainment. As before, I loved Áili and Olivia’s friendship, and I was pleased to see Áili growing in confidence, some of her previous clumsy self-deprecation replaced with a more resolute self-acceptance.
I also felt a growing sense of maturity in the text itself – in Cederlund’s writing as much as in its subject matter. As in Middagsmörker, Cederlund weaves deeper historical and political themes into her story, once again exploring institutional racism as well as the historic oppression of the Sami people. Here, however, these themes seemed to be more instrumental to the plot, with Cederlund more insistent on our shared responsibility to get wise to and confront injustices committed both within and by our own communities. The issues discussed here may be specific to the Sami community, but the heart of Cederlund’s message is relevant to us all, and it is a point she makes with sensitivity.
Although Gryningsstjärna has a tone and plot arc distinct from Middagsmörker, it also has a slight whiff of a bridging novel, its cliff-hanger ending in particular leaving little space for the book to stand on its own.