After his previous adventures as The Bard's apprentice, with Vikings, trolls, elves, hobgoblins, and much else besides, Jack is now back living in his home village. He's still having magic lessons with The Bard and is surrounded by those he has met on those adventure, Thorgil the shield maiden in particular. She's her usual prickly self and somedays the two get on, others they don't. A new family to the area are the Tanners, mother and two daughters, slyiy intent on causing as much trouble as they can.
Outside the village lives Brother Aiden, a monk, living in seclusion. He has, in his care, a bell named Fair Lamenting. It gives off a beautiful sound but must never be rung. Unfortunately it is and a draugr, the dead soul of a mermaid, is drawn to it and death is hot on her heels - possibly for them all.
The Bard and Jack must work out how to get rid of this presence but their course is not straightforward. First they must visit Brother Severus, an old acquaintance, to find out how he becane entangled with this mermaid and left her to die. Then they must travel to the island where it happened and thence on to Notland, the under-water kingdom of the Fin people, who hopefully will have the answer to their problems. But the path is hazardous and Jack and his friends will have many obstacles to overcome before their quest is fulfilled.
At last I have actually finished a fantasy series! The joy of it for me has been the journey, not just the physical one but the one Jack has undertaken from that of an ordinary young boy, not much appreciated by his parents (his younger sister was always the favourite) to several years later where he's a proper apprentice to The Bard, with all that entails. At the same time he's still a boy... with simmering resentments, a tendency to be rash, and growing feelings for Thorgil which he tries to hide, even to himself.
For me, characterisation is one of the strengths of these books. Nancy Farmer reflects the way people really are, neither all good nor all bad but a mix of both. The two main characters of Jack and Thorgil are very real but I also like The Bard, the albatross, Seafarer, and the Viking crew. The author doesn't try to gloss over the historial role of the Vikings either. Yes, they are friends to Jack and his travelling companions but their way of life is violent and cruel, they trade in slaves, and Jack's feelings toward his friends are ambivilent to say the least... even Thorgil who he well knows is quite happy to kill in the name of honour or even just for sport.
All that said, I did really enjoy the travelling element to this series. It takes place in the very north eastern corner of England and the Scottish borders... and stretches from there to Norway. These places are real but of course but the legends, Norse Gods and mythical beasts etc., are not... but they feel real. The area is so wild that you can easily imagine a race of trolls in the mountains, a magical race of Pictish beings in Scotland, or a whole world of people living under the sea who collect riches just to experience the envy of others.
I've no idea why this wonderful trilogy is not more well known. I love it to bits for its sheer imagination and story telling. It cries out for a follow-up trilogy but I believe Nancy Farmer has to rely on her publishers being impressed enough with sales and she said that this last instalment has been largely ignored. What a travesty! These books are beautifully written, exciting, imaginative and even educational and it's a real shame that the story might not achieve its full potential.