(2007 / 2016) Joanne Harris, Gollancz, £14.99, hrdbk, xi + 513pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21704-1
This is a book that appears to have shifted categories in terms of its audience. It was originally marketed as young adult/children but has been re-issued (2016) in a format to tie-in with Harrisís later novel The Gospel of Loki.
The notion of Ragnorok in Norse mythology is fairly widely known and referenced, even before Marvel used it in a film title. The final battle when, nearly everyone dies, the age of the gods will be over and the age of man shall begin. For this novel, the setting is 500 years after Ragnorok. A new monotheistic religious force called The Order with attributes of the Christian and Catholic churches outlawing magic except for that which they use. Maddy Smith is a 14-year old girl with a runemark on her hand that marks her as an outcast among her village. Her only friend is a wandering traveller, called One-Eye. He sends her into the world under a hill, to retrieve a treasure known as the Whisper. But as Maddy embarks on her quest, The Order become interested in whatís under the hill, seeing it as a chance to wipe out the past forever and One-Eye and Maddy gets sucked into the plans of different factions of Norse mythology and Lokiís own schemes.
Firstly, yes there are a lot of familiar elements in this story. The young lead with powers, the old mentor, the Christian faith conflicting with the Pagan world, multiple descending into the underworld. However, these are done well. Harris is handling them as things that come out of the story, that are unexpected and actually come with twists. This is not plot box ticking; this is the author providing her own spin on the material. She manages to provide her own versions of underworld realms that feel new and creepy and surprise the reader.
Harris also does not paint her characters in bland broad strokes. The figures of mythology that return, do not automatically reach joint decisions about what to do. They have their own agendas. It is not just Loki of whom people should be wary.
This is another one of the stories great strengths. Harris tries not just to have one dimensional characters, she gives them a sense of having had an existence before the story started, not just the mythological ones. The people of The Order are not just simple fundamentalists, but have an organisation and structure. There is one character, in the story who you think is going to be pushed to the sidelines or killed off given her place in the village society, but is presented as a sympathetic character and given a role and an arc to play in the narrative action.
This does have a sight flaw, as the heroine Maddy, feels pushed for space at times as the story progresses with the other machinations of the rest of the cast. This is something that is always a risk if you have Loki as a cast member. However, by the end the scene is set for further adventures, with the potential for new directions and stories. Highly recommended for readers of any age.
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