Orson Scott Card Review

From Uncle Orson Reviews Everything, by Orson Scott Card:

Some books are so badly misplaced in the bookstore that you have to wonder: What were they thinking?

But I’ve been in the publishing industry long enough that I can tell you exactly what they were thinking when Judson Roberts’ Strongbow Saga was published as a young adult novel, even though it’s a serious adult historical.

The problem is that there’s no historical novel category anymore. You won’t walk through the bookstore and find a section labeled “historicals.”

Instead, historical novels are evenly divided among other departments. Some historicals show up in the romance section; usually, they’re anachronistic bodice-rippers, though some of them are seriously trying to be true to a historical period.

Then you have the trashy-bestseller pseudo-historicals, full of conspiracy theories and exposes and politically correct protagonists struggling against the ignorant prejudices of their time.

These show up in fiction and literature, along with a few holdover classics like Mary Renault’s Greek novels, Robert Graves’ I, Claudius and Claudius the God, and a handful of others that refuse to go away.

Visit the mystery section for some of the best historicals. Often historical accuracy is strained in order to make room for a sleuth — most eras had no detectives — but once you get past that hurdle, many writers do a first-rate job of carrying on the nearly abandoned historical novel tradition.

And then there’s the young adult section, a ghetto walled off from the adult customers. How does a serious historical novel get dropped there?

When Viking Warrior, the first volume of Strongbow, crossed the desks of the editors, I can guess exactly what the editor thought: This is a terrific writer and a very good novel. But it’s a historical novel. There’s no sleuth, so I can’t push it to mystery. The hero is 15 years old and the only women are mother figures — definitely not romance. No trashy gimmicks and anachronisms — not a potential bestseller.

So it’s unpublishable, thinks the editor. But that really sticks in her craw, because she knows it’s a very good book that deserves to exist in print and find a grateful audience.

Wait, the editor thinks. The protagonist is 15! That means this book could be published as young adult! True, the book is actually aimed at adult readers; the writer makes no concessions toward the official Interests of Contemporary Teens. But at least in the YA section it can be published at all.

So the writer gets steered to YA editors and the book comes out in a section of the bookstore where adult devotees of serious historical fiction will never find it.

Worse yet, in the effort to convince girls to try a novel that by plot description would seem to be a boys-only book (though it’s not), they decide to put photographs of a sultry male stud in Viking drag and modern sexy-guy hairdo on the cover.

What they don’t realize is that by trying to create sex appeal for teenage girls, they make it look like a girls’ book! And while girls will read boys’ books, most boys will not pick up books that seem to be targeting girls.

That’s why author Judson Roberts finds his serious historical novels shunted off into YA fiction. I’m sure he was grateful when his books were contracted by a publisher, but I’m quite certain that this book has not reached anything like the audience that it deserves.

I can give you a plot summary: Halfdan is a slave in a great Danish household. His father is the lord of the house; his mother is an Irish princess who was captured and enslaved when all the relatives who might have ransomed her were killed in battle.

On his deathbed, his father agrees to free Halfdan and declare him to be his son. Suddenly Halfdan shifts from the nothingness of slavery to being a warrior prince. The trouble is, no one has trained him for war. So his half-brother, Harald, takes on his training and discovers he has a natural talent with a bow, along with the strength and cleverness and craft to be a good warrior.

But within the family there is a viper, who betrays everyone and throws the blame for his treachery on Halfdan.

That’s the plot — leaving out a lot, you can be sure, including the intricate family politics that prompted the publisher to reach for the girl audience.

What I can’t tell you is the depth and care taken in the research of this book. It’s an alien society, and yet it’s a significant part of the historical roots of our own England-based culture. I quickly become impatient with “historical” novels whose authors have done only cursory research. Judson Roberts has not just done his research, but has also discovered a plausible version of the mind and heart of people from another time.

Viking Warrior, despite its generic-sounding title, is the real thing: A well-written, well-researched, exciting, moving historical novel that is definitely for adults.

So walk into the YA section of Barnes & Noble (Borders doesn’t even carry the books, alas!) or go online with Amazon.com and order Viking Warrior, Dragons from the Sea and The Road to Vengeance. (Be warned — the second and third volumes are really a single long book that was cut in half because YA novels can only be a certain length.)

If some kid decides to borrow your books and read them, well, that’s all right, too.

Reprinted with permission from Orson Scott Card.

This review originally appeared on November, 20, 2008 on the website for the Rhino Times: (http://greensboro.rhinotimes.com/Articles-i-2008-11-20-187915.112113_Quantum_Bees_Vikings_Facebook_Hamlet.html) and on Orson Scott Card’s Hatrack River Web site at