In the Norse-inspired Heroes of the Valley, Halli Sveinsson is a troublemaker. Always has been. He's dwarfishly short, as people are fond of reminding him, stocky, and dark-haired - not at all the handsome offspring his House, the House of Svein, is used to producing. He's a disgrace to Svein, their noble ancestor, one of the twelve heroes of their people's lands. And... well, did I mention he's an incurable troublemaker?
But when one of Halli's tricks, played on the son of the snobby Arbiter of the House of Hakon, snowballs and results in tragedy, Halli is pressed by honor and desire for revenge to leave his home and everything he's known, risking thieves, murderers, lice the size of mice (rhyme), and even Trows, the deadly creatures of legend that the twelve heroes fought long ago.
That's how Heroes of the Valley starts. That's the first ten or so chapters. From there, the whole book reads like a compendium of the exploits of one of the Norse legends by which it was inspired. After trying to get his revenge, Halli moves on to another goal. When that (sort of) fails, he goes on to another. Then it's another attempt at another goal. Which brings you to the fantastic ending (more on that later).
Don't get me wrong - it's not nearly as disjointed as trying to read a book of Greek or Norse myths. Throughout it all, Stroud keeps the main backbone of the whole thing just visible enough to remind the reader what it's all about, while still allowing Halli to have a ton of adventures - sometimes funny, sometimes not so much.
Characters. I love the characters, Halli most of all. Unlike most characters that are written to be tricksters, Halli really tries. He truly means well. He's just not good at being a hero like the mighty (mighty?) Svein - or so he thinks. He's naive and gullible and downright stupid sometimes, but he's also honorable and clever and humble - a true round character, something else at which Stroud excels.
I also liked Aud, Halli's friend from the House of Arne. She's all that a 'plucky heroine' should be - spunky and vivacious, but never stuck-up or critical or I-am-woman-hear-me-roar. She's hilarious. She's Halli's perfect match. I love Jonathan Stroud just for creating Aud.
One more thing and then I'll stop raving: the myths of the twelve heroes. According to legend, the twelve died to create a boundary between their people and the monstrous Trows. No one has ever seen a Trow in ages, but everyone, of course, knows that they're out there beyond the walls. Don't they? Well, Aud doesn't, as Halli finds out - but he's not so sure... I won't spoil anything, but Stroud pulls an awesome move during the last half of the book that I would never have seen coming. Well, maybe in a century, but my point stands. The bottom line is, Stroud did not waste the Trows, as I feared he would.
In conclusion, Heroes Of The Valley is what I've come to expect from Stroud. Exciting, funny, original, maybe even genius. It starts pretty slow, but don't give up. Truly awesome things come to those who wait.