Book Review: The First Girl Child by Amy Harmon

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: 47North
Publication Date: August 20th, 2019
Pages: 408, trade paperback
Source: Library

Bayr of Saylok, bastard son of a powerful and jealous chieftain, is haunted by the curse once leveled by his dying mother. Bartered, abandoned, and rarely loved, she plagued the land with her words: From this day forward, there will be no daughters in Saylok.

Raised among the Keepers at Temple Hill, Bayr is gifted with inhuman strength. But he’s also blessed with an all-too-human heart that beats with one purpose: to protect Alba, the first girl child born in nearly two decades and the salvation for a country at risk.

Now the fate of Saylok lies with Alba and Bayr, whose bond grows deeper with every whisper of coming chaos. Charged with battling the enemies of their people, both within and without, Bayr is fueled further by the love of a girl who has defied the scourge of Saylok.

What Bayr and Alba don’t know is that they each threaten the king, a greedy man who built his throne on lies, murder, and betrayal. There is only one way to defend their land from the corruption that has overtaken it. By breaking the curse, they could defeat the king…but they could also destroy themselves.

From ​the New York Times bestselling author comes a breathtaking fantasy of a cursed kingdom, warring clans, and unexpected salvation.

I originally was not going to read this book because the premise made me uneasy. The idea could easily fall into cissexism if not deconstructed properly. However, I decided to put my hesitation aside and check it out from the library. After seeing the high ratings and number of reviews on the book, I figured, it probably would be a solid read at least.

I was mistaken. 

I will readily admit that I’m hard to please when it comes to Norse fiction — even if an author gets the cultural details right, their portrayal of the gods could irritate me. My wariness increased when I came across a Bible verse at the beginning of the book. Once the book gets going, it doesn’t get better. 

I’m going to try to explain this as best I can. Harmon comes at Norse religion in a very Christian manner. Odin is treated as a benevolent, all-powerful father figure that everyone primarily prays to. Thor is mentioned here and there, as is Loki, who also plays a part in the fantasy island’s creation story. Furthermore, only nobles really prayed to Odin, and even then it was with a heavy dose of distrust. Odin is not someone you’re meant to readily believe and trust in. The commoners and farmers would pray to Thor or Frey, as they were the “Big Three” of Norse religion. 

At the beginning of the book, Dagmar rescues his sister’s newborn son. Instead of praying to Frigga or Freya to save the infant, he prays to Odin. Why? Odin has no familial attribute. He would have heard the prayers and gone, “What the Hel are you praying to me for? Leave me the fuck alone.” And that’s if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, Odin’s going to come on by and see what he can do to “bless” the child. Freya finally gets a mention on page 37, but at nearly 100 pages in, the only gods mentioned were Odin, Thor, Loki, and Freya. Odin is the sole god who created the island the characters live on, again a rather Christian idea of a single deity being the one to create a world, whereas the Norse religion believes in multiple beings creating the world. 

Valhalla is treated as the be all, end all for the afterlife, with no mention of Hel or Freya’s afterlife. When a king is killed by an altar falling on him, another character mentions that “he will dine in Valhalla tonight”. Sorry, no. Only warriors who died in battle got into Valhalla or Freya’s realm. Everyone else goes to Hel. 

At another point, a father-to-be is waiting for his wife to give birth. In Viking times, the fathers were always in the room with the laboring mothers. Always. For days on end, even. There were rarely any exceptions to this rule. Yet the book’s character does not spend time in the room, and no one makes mention of this, suggesting to me that Harmon did not do any deep research into this. If it was a choice to move the plot along, even worse, in my opinion.

Oh, the author is also sure to include “not all men”. Because, you know. Gotta make sure the men are pacified, here.

I was already on the fence about it by this point, about 80 pages in, so I decided to skim. On page 225, we’re told that “only women can bear children”. 

Hello, cissexism! I was hoping I wouldn’t see you here. 

At that point, I decided to put the book aside. We are not going to get along. The deconstruction of gender roles is shallow at best. The religion is Christianized window dressing, and the research into the culture of the Vikings just isn’t there. I’m disappointed but not surprised.

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