A Stranger at the Hearth by Katherine Buel – Novella Review

I found Katherine Buel’s A Stranger at the Hearth something of a mixed bag. It is the latest in a vein of retellings that follow in the footsteps of such luminary works of fantasy as The Song of Achilles, this one centered around the legendary figure of Sigurd from Germanic and Norse myth. The source material is the “Saga of the Volsungs,” so the author is reimagining her character strictly through the Norse as opposed to Germanic prism of Sigurd’s figure.

It’s one of those works that adopts a style that attempts to pull at your heartstrings by replicating a lyrical quality to its prose; unlike Madeline Miller’s works, where that tone worked for me, here it often failed to capture not just my imagination but even my attention. It’s a great shame; I’m a sucker for a good Norse retelling.

Sigurd himself I found unexceptionally dull, which is not what you want in a main character of legend. I was interested initially, before Sigurd’s birth, and as some court intrigue was introduced after the death of his first benefactor. My interest waxed and waned over those early chapters; observing Sigurd’s excellence from afar woke no great fascination, but was again piqued when a mysterious figure, the Master of Masters, took an interest in our legendary (to be) lad. Buel has created a compelling character in this arcane blacksmith, a figure part trickster, part puppet master. With him, dialogue and point-of-view click much better than they do elsewhere; the stilted quality of some elements of the prose are notably absent.

I’m sorry to say, A Stranger at the Hearth was one of the weaker reads I’ve come across this past year. I wanted to like it; it is my hope that, if you choose to read it, you find something that I might have missed. It’s not vivid enough, it’s not fantastic enough, it’s not rooted to historical reality enough; I haven’t read the original text that Buel is retelling, but if I had to bet, I’d say she hasn’t allowed herself to move far enough past it. The truth of succesful retellings does not lie in excessive faith in the original; rather, it lies in the bravery to bring radical, novel elements, often drawn from the novel perspectives that the author’s own contemporary moment in time might open up. Think of Madelline Miller and what her retellings offer. Think of Shelley Parker-Chan and She Who Became the Sun. Katherine Buel doesn’t introduce–in my reading of the text–anything revolutionary, anything truly exciting in the vein of these two other authors. Hers is too true a retelling.

Of course, this is a novella and not a novel; that is the obvious counter-argument to the criticism above. Even so; I was engrossed in Circe, in She Who Became the Sun, in many other excellent retellings, at a portion of the length of A Stranger at the Hearth. It’s a damn shame.

Thank you to NetGalley for the free copy in exchange for an honest review.

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