In When We Were Vikings, MacDonald's captivating, beautifully written and witty novel, he introduces to the literary world an unforgettable protagonist ... With a fast-paced and engaging plot, MacDonald makes it easy for his readers to care deeply—and immediately—about Zelda. As the humorous and bittersweet storyline of When We Were Vikings progresses, readers will feel compassion for Zelda, while enthusiastically cheering her on to victory against the perceived dangers in her life ... The coming-of-age themes in When We Were Vikings are universally relatable ... With his stunning, heartfelt debut, Andrew David MacDonald...[is] on a trajectory for a most legendary writing career.
MacDonald covers very difficult terrain: poverty, lack of health care, violence, child abuse, abandonment, and alcoholism ... In this well-written and compelling novel, MacDonald conveys Zelda's particular challenges and succeeds in bringing her to life.
... well-intentioned ... When We Were Vikings is the tale of Zelda’s quest for autonomy, and MacDonald charts her course admirably. By rendering typical coming-of-age milestones through Zelda’s decidedly atypical perspective, MacDonald rejects longstanding stereotypes and introduces a 21st-century heroine who is fearless and capable — and who, by the way, happens to be neurodivergent. Unfortunately, while it’s impossible not to root for Zelda, MacDonald’s creative choices occasionally blur the lines between adult and Y.A. fiction, which distracts from the narrative and undermines his efforts ... Zelda is a marvel, a living, breathing three-dimensional character with a voice so distinctive she leaps off the page ... While much of this — along with MacDonald’s exaggerated metaphors, simplified themes, broadly drawn characters and predictable action — seems too juvenile for adult readers, it’s all appropriate, and appropriately rendered, for a coming-of-age novel ... If I could, I’d stop here. No one wants to knock a first-time author, especially one tackling ableism and identity. However, MacDonald fumbles a critical aspect of Zelda’s becoming — her sexual awakening — in a way that’s troubling yet all too familiar ... It’s unclear whether MacDonald expects us to laugh at her naïveté or feel horrified on her behalf; either way, the net effect is jarring ... MacDonald places her in sexual situations that leave her unsatisfied and diminished; Zelda is, by turns, infantilized, duped and very nearly raped. In a book that so lovingly celebrates her autonomy, it’s again unclear why she’s consistently portrayed as powerless — once maybe, but three times? — and this lack of clarity makes these scenes feel gratuitous, as if they were superimposed on the Y.A. themes to reposition the book. Intentional or not (MacDonald is an otherwise respectful writer), given our cultural landscape, authors at every stage are obliged to reach a higher bar when illustrating female sexuality. The bar rises even higher when sexuality is juxtaposed with disability and consent ... Zelda deserves better — as does the reader. Erotic escapades can fuel legendary adventures, but they can also be the stuff of nightmares. To those who write about them, I say this: Choose wisely.
MacDonald's offbeat debut...is by turns funny and tragic ... The guileless Zelda, who narrates, is a joy ... MacDonald avoids oversentimentality and a too-neat resolution, instead depicting Zelda’s desire to shape her own life and be the hero of her own legend with frankness and humor. Readers will be inspired by the unforgettable Zelda.
In this engaging debut novel, MacDonald skillfully balances drama and violence with humor, highlighting how an unorthodox family unit is still a family. He’s never condescending, and his frank examination of the real issues facing cognitively disabled adults—sexuality, employment, independence—is bracing and compassionate. With Zelda, he’s created an unforgettable character, one whose distinctive voice is entertaining and inspiring ... An engaging, inclusive debut.