Kingdom of Trolls, published in February 2011, is the fourth in the MiddleGate Books children adventure series by Canadian author/illustrator Rae Bridgman.
I hadn’t heard of the series until I was mailed a copy of the Kingdom of Trolls, which takes place in Iceland, but the child in me was excited to learn more about it because I’ve always been a fan of mystery novels.
However, my enthusiasm sank shortly after I started reading. Although I could certainly sense the author’s talent for storytelling, it seemed obvious that she had borrowed a lot from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
I acknowledge that it is possible that the two authors may have had the same ideas about a world of magicians parallel to that of humans before writing their books and without ever learning about each others’ work.
But considering that both stories also include orphaned children who learn about magic at school and solve mysteries in their pastime, ghosts with whom they consult at the library, magical pets, a ministry responsible for magical affairs, a secret evil order of the dark arts trying to take control, a wicked wizard (who in this book shares a name with Hermione’s cat in the Harry Potter series) on the hunt for a young boy whose parents/grandmother died in order to protect, magical portals allowing people to travel between vast distances in an instance… it’s hardly a coincidence.
For this reason I found it hard to enjoy the first part of the book where the protagonists, Wil and Sophie, were at home in MiddleGate, a magical place in Canada.
The events leading up to them traveling to Iceland where the main adventure takes place were a bit longwinded as well and stretched out over about half the book.
Although many of these events were original, colorful and relevant to the storyline (the strange fortune telling machines, for example), I would have preferred the lead-up to be shorter.
Also, once in Iceland, it takes the characters a long time to get to the actual Kingdom of Trolls and the wrap-up feels a bit rushed. Or perhaps some threads are left loose on purpose to build up excitement for the next book in the series.
Anyway, to praise the author, as soon as the trip to Iceland begins and the characters are taken out of the Harry Potteresque background of MiddleGate, Bridgman demonstrates her full ability to be original.
It’s interesting how she weaves bits and pieces from Icelandic culture, history and legends into the plot and takes her characters to actual locations in Iceland, including Námafjall, a geothermal area by Lake Mývatn in the northeast, and the Museum of Icelandic Witchcraft and Sorcery in Hólmavík in the eastern West Fjords.
I also thought the author did a good job in making these descriptions as authentic as possible—apart from a few linguistic slips in the case of people’s names (for example, a woman whose mother’s name is Íris would have the matronymic Írisardóttir, not Írisdóttir)—and so the book also serves as a guide to some of Iceland’s more peculiar attractions, which I’m sure many children would enjoy.
After a slow start, the plot takes an exhilarating turn. Like on a rollercoaster ride, readers follow the resourceful children and their aloof Aunt Violet, who only wears purple, on a wild journey around Iceland, jumping in and out of the past and getting caught up in nasty situations.
I’m fond of some of the details of the story, like the frames of Sophie’s glasses changing color according to her mood and how “snake” and related words are used in description of various situations (albeit a little overdone at times).
For example: “Don’t have a snake” means “don’t be upset” and being “snake-legged” refers to something like feeling embarrassed. Apparently snakes are some sort of holy beings in MiddleGate.
Other details I found unnecessary, like the Latin prologue to each chapter.
To conclude, in spite of a mostly well-written story, many aspects of it were so uncomfortably familiar that I can’t give the author as much credit as she would have deserved with a little more originality. It’s a shame she didn’t rely more on her own creativity, which she certainly seems to possess.
Even so, younger readers might not mind the striking similarities to Harry Potter as much as I did (even if they are devoted fans of J.K. Rowling’s magical adventures) and will enjoy Brigdman’s writing all the same.
All four books of the MiddleGate series are available through McNally Robinson Booksellers.
Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir