Book Review: Northlander
Tales of the Borderlands: Book One
by Meg Burden
Northlander is a 2007 Cybils finalist.
Ellin's father Rowan is a healer, the best in the Southlands. When the Northland king becomes gravely ill, his advisors send to the Southlands for Rowan to come and help. But Northland laws and Northland prejudice prevent Rowan from touching the king, so he's forced to do what he can by proxy: brewing herbs and giving advice. When a crisis happens and Rowan is away, Ellin ignores the laws and heals the king herself, an act that will have far-reaching consequences. For although she saved the king, she did break the laws, an act that can't be forgiven no matter what the result.
In healing the king, Ellin awakened her own latent healing powers. She also discovered that she has other powers as well, powers which she instinctively knows that she must keep secret, even from her own father. But Ellin discovers that she's not the only one who has these powers, and even in the cold Northlands Ellin finds friends. But prejudice, ignorance, and fear exist everywhere, and friends may not be enough to save Ellin.
There's a lot to like about Northlander. Rich world-building and interesting characters are only the start. It's a moving, layered fantasy with many unexpected plot twists. Ellin is a wonderful character; the present tense gives her first-person narration an immediacy that allows us to see her develop as she grows in understanding. But more than that, author Meg Burden pulls off a difficult feat: she gives the five sons of the king, including the twins, distinctive personalities. It would be easy to fall back on cliches in creating a group of siblings like that - the brainy one, the leader, etc - but Burden gave each character depth and ongoing development.
Northlander is a book that continues to surprise the reader. At first it seems a standard, cliched us vs. them: the evil Northlanders are prejudiced against the good Southlanders. But it turns out to be so much more than that. I can't say too much without giving away some of the surprises, but this is a book painted in a rich palette of many shades of gray, not just black and white. It's a book that shows how prejudice and hatred can exist anywhere there is ignorance and fear, and goodness can be found in the most unexpected of places.