Book Review: When We Were Vikings by Andrew Davis MacDonald

PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge Prompt: A book that's published in 2020 Other PS 2020 reading prompts this would satisfy: A bi...

PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge Prompt: A book that's published in 2020

Other PS 2020 reading prompts this would satisfy: A bildungsroman, A book you picked because the title caught your attention, A book with at least a four-star rating on Goodreads, A book with a main character in their 20s

TW: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, sexual assault, abuse, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, conversations surrounding abortion, racial slurs, bigotry, slurs towards those who are differently-abled, ableism, homophobia

I was first interested in When We Were Vikings after seeing it as an option from Book of the Month. As a goal for myself, I only choose one BOTM pick each month and decided to go with another title. Luckily, Gallery Books was kind enough to send me a copy of Vikings, so I'm actually quite glad I didn't choose it from BOTM.

Zelda, a 21-year old woman with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, is very into vikings - in fact, she considers herself a bit of a viking and those closest to her are her tribe: Gert, her older brother with whom she lives; Annie aka AK47, Gert's ex-girlfriend and still close friend to Zelda; Marxy, Zelda's boyfriend/fair maiden; Dr. Laird, Zelda's therapist; and Big Todd, who manages the community center Zelda frequents. Zelda's on a mission to build her own Viking Legend, and when her brother starts spending time with some sketchy people, it gives her the chance to check a few things off her THINGS LEGENDS NEED list.

I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about this story that are quite hard to put into words. I had the most horrible time trying to give it a rating. I enjoyed this book and the story. It was really eye-opening to read a the book from the point-of-view of a character with developmental concerns presenting symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. But also, not being written as an #ownvoices novel, it seems potentially problematic for the story to be told from the viewpoint of someone who does present with the syndrome. I actually tried to look further into the author and his connection to FAS, but couldn't find any information really. I'm worried that the subject of the story may perpetuate harmful stereotypes, but as I'm unfamiliar with the actual syndrome, its symptoms, or its effect, I don't have a lot of input to add here. These were my main thoughts, however, as I read throughout the story.

I also had a huge issue with the way race was discussed in this book. Throughout the story, Zelda mentioned race and how it's been presented in her life. She refused to say the n-word, in fact calling it "the n-word" throughout, but later the word is spelled out in all caps as something written on a wall in graffiti. It seems unimportant to the storyline and added literally nothing to the content of the story.

The plot is also heavily based around sex, which isn't problematic in itself, but seemed really pushy, assault-like, and using sex in a way that's only advantageous to one of the party. So at times, I felt a little icky reading it.

So, now that I've pushed through the major points I found to be potentially problematic, I will say that I did enjoy reading the book. It was written incredibly conversationally, which I find super easy to read. It reminded me of YA, but as the protagonist was 21, I don't think it fell into that category. I liked that the ending wasn't what I expected

It made me very uncomfortable at times (I really cringe at slurs regularly used in the book), but as mentioned before, it was a new perspective for me. I appreciated that the protagonist (and narrator) identified as being differently-abled developmentally. I also liked all the fun little factoids about Vikings. (Is Thor a Viking? I was shocked to find that I knew more about Vikings than I thought because of the MCU.)

Many of the characters were extremely likeable, while many were flawed in a way that made you support them, but also get really angry at them. I'd say that the characters felt a lot like people you may know in real life, and I really did like that. Big Todd is a fantastic human and I really appreciated his character so very much.

"...Sometimes the world thinks something is not possible, but it turns out that they can be wrong. Even fancy scientists can be wrong." - When We Were Vikings, Andrew Davis MacDonald

In many reviews and synopses, When We Were Vikings is described as heartwarming and uplifting, but I would contradict that and say it's the exact opposite. This story is dark and sad. There are moments that made me proud and maybe warmed my heart a bit, but overall the story was really heavy. It hurt. If it was a movie, I would've sobbed probably the entire time. I wouldn't not recommend this novel, but I would warn readers to go in expecting that it may be problematic at times, and it won't give you the warm fuzzies the reviews promise. Read at your own risk.

Goodreads rating: ★★★

*Thanks so much to Gallery Books for providing a copy of the book and a few free gifts. I chose to review the book of my own accord.

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