YA fantasy has experienced an influx of sparkly vampires, fallen angels and broody fey-creatures in the past ten years, but this is the first time I’ve seen trolls toted as desirable romantic partners. When I hear the word “troll” I think of the large and grotesque creatures from The Hobbit or The Three Billy Goats Gruff, but Danielle Jensen reimagines them as creatures that are human in shape, but deformed in features. Our first glimpse of one is described thusly: “the two sides of his face, so flawless on their own, were like halves of a fractured sculpture put back together askew.”
Meanwhile, the King of the Trolls is hugely obese, and the Queen is a Siamese twin (her doll-sized sister grows out of her back), which we’re told is the result of years of in-breeding in the aristocracy. But don’t worry, our heroine’s love interest is still super-hot.
Cecile de Troyes is a teenage girl with a beautiful singing voice who is riding home from town one day when she’s waylaid by a past acquaintance. But instead of seeing her home safely, Luc ties her up and forces her into a tunnel network under the Forsaken Mountain, insisting that she’s on her way to the buried city of Trollus where the trolls dwell.
Cecile is horrified to realize that he plans to sell her to the royal family, who believe that she is the subject of a prophecy that will break the curse that holds them all under the earth. But to fulfil her destiny, she first has to marry their crown prince Tristan. Like most YA romantic leads, Tristan is as arrogant and unpleasant as he is gorgeous and wealthy, with a heavy social conscience and a noble heart that’s just waiting to be melted by the right girl. When their “bonding” ceremony (which results in a psychic connection that forces them to feel each other’s emotions) fails to release the trolls from their prison, Cecile is kept on at the palace in the hopes her presence will eventually weaken the magic that holds the population within the city.
At first Cecile can think of nothing but escape. Her family is no doubt frantically worried, and her life held precariously in the hands of her new husband and father-in-law. But gradually she comes to learn more about the society she’s now a part of — the prejudice against half-bloods, the backstory of the witch’s curse, and the longing for many citizens to form a new and fairer form of government. Against her will, she finds herself becoming invested in Trollus — helped along by her growing attraction to Tristan.
In many ways Stolen Songbird (2014) is a typical YA fantasy, with the requisite first-person narration, romance with an upper-class jerk, and social upheaval brought about by the mere presence of our protagonist, but with enough original ideas to make it a rewarding read.
The world-building is generally very good. I enjoyed the city of Trollus, with its massive waterfall, floating lights and gardens of glass, and Jensen excels at her depiction of political intrigue. Having established some fundamental facts about troll culture — that they have to keep their promises, that they are unable to lie, and that the exchange of “favours” is practically a currency — these aspects are woven into the plot to provide plenty of twists, turns and loophole abuse. To survive in this world, Cecile has to remain sharp and focused, and she’s refreshingly proactive in learning what she can and wielding it to the best of her ability.
However, I remain a little murky on the depiction of the trolls. Though I loved the passage quoted above (describing one troll as having a face like “two halves of a fractured sculpture”), most of the disfigurements are blamed on in-breeding amongst the royal family — except of course in the case of our romantic lead Tristan. So apart from the deformities of a select few, I was given no clear idea on how these trolls physically differentiate from human beings. I’m hoping I didn’t miss something obvious, because it seems quite a damning oversight not to give us a proper description of the species as a whole, but all I could garner was that apart from silver eyes they were otherwise human-looking.
The story flits between two points-of-view: Cecile’s narration takes up ninety percent of the text but Tristan gets a few chapters of his own, and the book is surprisingly thick, with at least two more sequels to come. There are a couple segments in which my disbelief was stretched a little too thin (at one point Cecile is mortally wounded and yet still manages to survive being moved from one location to another, which includes getting submerged in a pool of water) but for the most part the plot hangs together nicely.
Despite being the first in a new trilogy, there’s enough here to make you feel as though you’ve enjoyed a complete story, with a tantalizing hook in Stolen Songbird’s final paragraph to pave the way into its sequel.