We meet our protagonist, Zelda, as she turns 21. It's a pretty big day for most Americans, and it certainly is for Zelda. Things are going well for her—she has a boyfriend, her meetings with her therapist are going well, the brother (Gert) she lives with is taking college classes as a way to make their lives better, and Zelda's friend/Gert's ex gave her an actual small sword.
Zelda, you see, is a major fan of Viking culture and wants to be a Viking hero—and this sword is another step on her way to becoming a Viking legend. She also was born on the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum—as she says her Mom accidentally poisoning her resulted in Zelda being short, with trouble sitting still and thinking.
She has a fantastic therapist, Dr. Laird, who helps both her and Gert (when Gert will let him) navigate her challenges and Gert's own issues. He's a few years older than his sister, and once their mother died (their father disappeared years prior to that), he took on the responsibility of taking care of her.
This is a good thing for Zelda, incidentally, they'd been placed with an Uncle after their mother's death—and he's about as worthless a character as you can imagine. Gert does some business with people he shouldn't to get them out of that situation and into their own apartment. This comes back to haunt him around the time of her birthday and old debts and favors need repayment. Meanwhile, his ex had convinced him to take courses at a Community College and helped him get the funding to start.
Gert's ex/Zelda's sword provider is known as AK47, by the way. Which says a lot about their neighborhood, I think. She's actually the moral center of this novel and provides most of the wisdom displayed (although Zelda is a close second on both fronts, especially with AK47's help).
While Gert's trying to improve their station in life, Zelda goes to classes at a community center with similarly-aged people with developmental disabilities There, in addition to spending time with friends (including her boyfriend), Zelda learns behavioral and life skills. The staff there are fantastic and really impressed me with the way they interacted with everyone.
Honestly, though the deck seems stacked against these two—they're taking care of each other and making their way in the world. Things are going as well for them as they could realistically hope (not that Zelda's great at realistic expectations, she's convinced she'll be a Viking legend, for example). Except for that thing I'd said earlier about old debts and favors. And the expenses related to Dr. Laird (even on a sliding scale) and other ways Gert has to take care of Zelda. Oh, and maybe school isn't going too well, either.
Gert tries to insulate Zelda from all that, but it doesn't go too well. Zelda doesn't try to insulate Gert from the fact that she and her boyfriend want to progress their relationship to physical intimacy, but man, he wishes she would (and that she'd drop the idea in general. Spoiler: she doesn't).
We watch Zelda navigate these changing times, while she deliberately tries to mature and take on added responsibilities to help Gert. And Gert's life gets out of control.
There are threats of violence. Actual violence. Relationship troubles. A new job for Zelda. And pressures on the two siblings that test their bonds.
The attentive reader is always aware that Gert's in trouble and that he's not being all that honest with Zelda—don't misunderstand me, he's trying his best to take care of her, but he's hiding things from her and taking advantage of the fact that she can't understand everything that's happening. AK47 is a great character and I wish we'd gotten more time with her—things would've gone much better if Gert had stuck with her and listened to her.
Zelda's an unintentionally unreliable narrator (but man, she tries), and MacDonald does a wonderful job putting us in her head while she navigates these obstacles along the way to becoming a legend. Obviously, your appreciation for the novel will hinge on how much you relate to/connect with/root for/like Zelda. I didn't really get invested in Zelda as a character until the last 15-20% of the book, despite being hooked almost instantly and enjoying the novel. I think if I'd become invested early on, I would be jumping up and down excited about it.
But, I didn't. So all I can really say is that MacDonald did yeoman's work here and I have nothing but respect for the voice and craft displayed here. But I'm not able to muster the excitement that I think this book just might deserve. Part of that might be because I felt that I was supposed to find a lot of this amusing (and it did have its moments), and it is marketed as humorous, but it felt too much like laughing at Zelda, not with her (not that MacDonald ever mocked her).
I can't tell you why this really didn't click for me, but I didn't like it as much as I wanted to (or thought I should). I imagine that I'm going to be in the minority with this and that most readers will rave. I liked the characters, I liked the story, I admire the way MacDonald wrote this—capturing Zelda's voice and thought-process in a way that is both sympathetic and realistic. It's a good book, one that will earn fans by the truckload, I expect—if the story/characters sound interesting to you at all, go read it. You'll probably like it. Do me a favor though, and come back and tell me why I'm wrong not to swoon.
Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Gallery, Pocket Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post—thanks to both for this opportunity.