For Zelda, a twenty-one-year-old Viking enthusiast who lives with her older brother, Gert, life is best lived with some basic rules:
1. A smile means “thank you for doing something small that I liked.”
2. Fist bumps and dabs = respect.
3. Strange people are not appreciated in her home.
4. Tomatoes must go in the middle of the sandwich and not get the bread wet.
5. Sometimes the most important things don’t fit on lists.
But when Zelda finds out that Gert has resorted to some questionable—and dangerous—methods to make enough money to keep them afloat, Zelda decides to launch her own quest. Her mission: to be legendary. It isn’t long before Zelda finds herself in a battle that tests the reach of her heroism, her love for her brother, and the depth of her Viking strength.
When We Were Vikings is an uplifting debut about an unlikely heroine whose journey will leave you wanting to embark on a quest of your own, because after all…
We are all legends of our own making.
With a marketing campaign that draws comparisons to books such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, When We Were Vikings had a lot to live up to.
Zelda, who has Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, is 21 years old and dealing with adult issues such as securing her first job, feeling physical attraction, and wanting to have sex with her boyfriend (a boy called Marxy, who also has a disability). Her voice was engaging and easy to read; it had me flying through the book in under two days.
Zelda knows what she wants and is adamant that it should be her choice to experience certain things, even if her brother, Gert, doesn’t agree. In the past, my reading has been more centred around the YA genre and it was nice to see frank discussions about agency from an adult character with a disability.
There are some pretty shady characters in this book, since Gert is involved in some pretty shady stuff (which could inspire a whole raft of trigger warnings, including attempted rape, ableism, homophobia, and racism). But there are also some absolute gems, like Annie (nicknamed AK47), Big Todd (a worker at the community centre), and Carol (Zelda’s boss at the library).
In a book where the character’s disability is a central part of the story, it’s crucial to ensure the representation is accurate—especially when it’s not an #ownvoices story. While there is no explicit mention of sensitivity readers or research in an author note or acknowledgement, I did find an interview on Shelf Awareness where MacDonald talks about having to care for a sibling when he was in his teens, and about having a friend whose sister was on the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum.
I would defer judgement on the disability rep to someone with more experience in this area, but I can say that this is an engaging, character-driven book and I’d be interested to read more of MacDonald’s work in the future.
I received a copy of When We Were Vikings from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, in exchange for an honest review as part of a blog tour. All opinions are my own.