The titular “Berserker” of Emmy Laybourne’s new young adult fantasy is not what most who know the term would first imagine. There’s no burly, bearded bear-men here, except in the distant past. No, the hero of this story is a teenage girl, blessed or cursed to be the one who protects her family by any means, and she’s one of the most interesting heroines the YA market has seen in a while.
Hanne Hemstad and her siblings are Nytteson, descendants of Viking kings equipped with fantastic powers from super-strength to control of the wind and weather. When Hanne’s power — a trancelike rage that drives her to attack those who threaten her loved ones with swift brutality – leads her to murder three men who still manage to kill her father in the process, she and her siblings flee from Norway to America, where they hire a young cowboy to be their guide to hopeful safety in the Montana frontier.
Part western and part X-men, “Berserker” represents a departure from Laybourne’s previous works, the “Monument 14” apocalyptic survival trilogy and the stand-alone horror/thriller “Sweet.” Yet, the things that made those works so compelling — a strong central cast of characters, intriguing high-concept premise, and palpable tension throughout the building plot — are all present in the refined style of this distinctly northern frontier fantasy.
That distinct blend of genres is the biggest initial draw into Hanne’s world. The rules of the Nytte, the “gifts,” are well-established and distinctly Scandinavian, rooted in Viking tales of glory and their victims’ tales of terror. The pursing antagonists, who seek to “collect” Nytteson on behalf of a baron obsessed with their powers, lend a sense of history to what is otherwise the quiet, contained story of one family dealing with their unique circumstances.
To then take all that and transplant it to a comparatively mundane American western via 19th-century immigration, homesteading and range-riding, offers so much tantalizing potential for future development. What other magic might have come over from the Old World? And what does the New have to offer to compare?
But while that potential draws readers in, it’s the characters that will make you stay. Hanne, her siblings, and the cowboy Owen — her eventual love interest — are all unique, distinct and likable. Even the villains are compelling in a way they didn’t really have to be, given how well the environment challenges the heroes as they travel. Together, they make “Berserker” uniquely compelling, and it’s easy to lose hours while reading it.
Sadly, some weaknesses seen in the previous works manage to slip into the new one too. The love story feels a wee bit rushed and shallow, especially since “Berserker” is likewise meant to be the start of a series, and the ending doesn’t hit with quite the oomph the tense pace indicates it should.
Still, it’s all in a class above some of the cheaper YA novels, the sort cranked out by people who don’t really care about the audience and are just looking to make a quick buck. Laybourne clearly cares for her work and that passion shines through.
Her willingness to experiment outside her established (and popular) genre goes a long way, and the end result is one of the most interesting and compelling new fantasy worlds for any age group.
By Emmy Laybourne
© 2017 Feiwel and Friends
Addley Fannin is a freelance writer with a master’s degree in Northern studies from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter: @addleyfannin.