I consumed the Bartimaeus Trilogy like a man starved: I had never known a story so gripping, thrilling, intruiging and downright funny all at once. Naturally, when they came to an end, I clamoured for more from this extraordinary, unbelieveably underrated author. I have Buried Fire and The Leap on my shelf, books that predate the Bartimaeus Trilogy, but I was most interested in seeing where Stroud would go after the fact.
It was a long wait. 2005 to 2008, to be precise. What was taking so long? Was Mr. Stroud struggling with ideas, or just perfecting his creation no matter how long it took? It was impossible to tell. So when I finally got a copy of Heroes of the Valley in my hands, I was both excited and nervous about reading new material from Stroud. Well, it becomes quickly apparent that the answer to the previous question is, yes, he took his sweet time crafting it to perfection.
At first, the book throws you off balance: it reads nothing like Stroud has ever written. The Bartimaeus Trilogy were busy, chatty adventures filled with events and colorful characters, but this standalone is something smaller, quiter, a bit more ponderous. There's an old-fashioned, sweeping epic quality to HotV that echoes similar fantasy epics in style, most notably Lord of the Rings. So whilst it certainly didn't feel like classic Stroud prose, it is nonetheless impressive, different and an indication of just how talented and flexible he is as an author.
But it's not all new. What is classic Stroud here is just how criminally good the story and setting is. The world of the Valley is brilliantly realised in evocative prose that, for me, brought back memories of the time I hiked around the Lake District and Scotland: the stark beauty, the harsh weathers, the looming mountains. The settlements, Houses, farmlands and Valley-folk, too, give off the vibe of Scandinavia in the Iron Age - it's all fantastically evoked, you can almost smell the horse manure.
But the real crux of where HotV will either fall or fly is in the story, and I'm safe to say it's as good, if not better, than anything he's produced, and believe me, that's saying something. The plot twists, turns, and leaves you guessing right up to it's climax, which is breathtaking, to say the least. You honestly have no idea where Stroud will lead you next. This is one of those precious stories that will have you squirming with delight as you cook up theories in your head as to why is going on, made all the better by the fact that the truth tops anything you came up with. All the thrills, scares and laughs that made his previous work so brilliant are all present and correct, yet maintain a feel of freshness, that this is it's own beast of a book in it's own right. And, of course, Halli is an anti-hero who is as complex as they come. This ain't no pretty boy Mary Sue who has strangers fawning at his feet, far from it. I dare you not to punch the air when he succeeds, as well as feel for him in his darker moments.
HotV is precisely what I'd hoped for: which was, ironically, nothing like what I'd expected. It's everything a fan of Stroud (and downright awesome storytelling) could ask for, and yet is so different, layered and thought-provoking that you can see why it took so long to write.
HotV isn't perfection: what is? One of the weaknesses of this story is that, As a standalone novel, it is tasked with beginning, developing and ending a fantasy epic in one go - not an easy task. HotV handles it amicably, but after you reach the back cover, you can't help but wish there were more to it, more pages or spreading it over a second book, to really get to grips with the numerous Houses and really beef up Halli's journey through the valley.
But this is scarcely a complaint: if anything it's just one more thrilled Stroud reader who clamors for more. Thank you once again, Mr. Stroud, for taking me places beyond my dreams.