(2010) James Lovegrove, Solaris, £7.99, pbk, 585pp, ISBN 978-1-907-51940-5
This is described as the third in the Pantheon Trilogy though that is a bit of a misnomer. It is really the last in a trio of completely independent stories inspired by the same theme - what if the ancient gods were real? In The Age of Ra the Egyptian gods are running most of the world, in the Age of Zeus the Olympian gods come back and rule the world, and in The Age of Odin the Norse gods never really went away.
As the story opens, the planet is enduring its third year of an unending winter; so cold that snowball fights are now commonplace amongst kids in Africa. This is generally disrupting the World, agriculture is failing to produce enough food, and there is growing unrest between nations. To add to this mix, the American president, Mrs. Keener (a character obvious inspired by Sarah Palin), is a right wing Republican hawk and busy invading anywhere she chooses.
Ex-soldier Gideon (Gid) Coxall is driving through a bad snow storm, heading up through the north of England in search of a new job. As he recalls just why he is doing this, we learn that Gid had an unfortunate childhood, that he found he could sort out a lot of his problems by resorting to violence and, though he was naturally quite a bright lad, he just did not get on with school. It was therefore no surprise that his career choices consisted of the army and not much else. Fortunately, he enjoyed the life, the comradeship, and the exhilaration of battle in various parts of the World, until he got caught by an IED (improvised explosive device) in Helmand province.
Now partially deaf and with a titanium plate fixing the hole in his skull, he is having a pretty miserable time trying to survive on a small army pension and a dead-end job. To make matters worse, his marriage had been failing for some time and has ended in divorce, leaving his son as just a voice on the phone. So, when another pensioned-off soldier told him rumours of the 'Valhalla Mission' – which sounded rather like a private army looking for former soldiers – they found themselves heading north through the storm in search of Asgard Hall.
Inevitably the car crashes in the snow and they are left to struggle the last few miles on foot, which is no fun as to add to their injuries they find themselves being hunted by wolves (recently reintroduced to the highlands, they are right in their element and successfully moving south). And that would have been the end of the story if it were not for a patrol out on their snowmobiles coming, guns blazing, to their rescue.
The next thing Gid knows he is recovering consciousness in Asgard and his substantial wounds are being tended to by a lady calling herself Frigga; her ointments and potions may be foul smelling and taste revolting, but they seem to be remarkably effective. Later he is joined by her husband, introducing himself as Odin, who explains that it was the Valkyries that saved him and that the protracted winter is in fact the Fimbulwinter before Ragnarök, the doom of the gods; that the great battle is nigh and he is gathering an army to fight his old foe Loki. He explains further that the Norse gods, created and given credence by the Norse folk and their centuries of storytelling, have remained in existence ever since, here in Asgard, one of the nine realms that make the World (and of which Midgard is the realm of normal humans). These days they do not have the power or might that they once did, but there is still enough storytelling in Midgard to ensure their continued existence and they have moved with the times and found that snowmobiles, Kalashnikovs, and the like, offer some very useful advantages.
Gid concludes that the self-styled Odin is some sort of rich nutter and determines to leave as soon as he is fit. Stealing a snowmobile, he does not get far through the forests before he is ambushed by frost giants and hauled off to one of their ice caverns. Finding himself with a weapon of pure ice in his hands and challenged to a fight to the death with one of their warriors, huge, white, furry, and stinking like nothing he has ever smelled before, he begins to realise that maybe Odin and his people are the real thing.
From there we continue to meet and get to know more gods and the soldiers they have recruited as they prepare for the coming battle. Before long that battle is joined, and it turns out that Loki has not been idle either: he has been making alliances with the inhabitants of other realms and has also got his hands on the latest of Midgard’s military technology. The skirmishes increase and become more intense, the weaponry more formidable, until the final showdown arrives.
The The Age of Odin has been classified as military SF, and that is pretty much what it is: there are a lot of fights and battle scenes. However, the story flows very well and Gid’s reminiscences and thoughts are woven nicely into the pace of the story, neither getting in the way of the other whilst filling out both quite nicely. As Gid tells the story in the first person and as he sees it, there is a fair bit of squady talk (though not overdone).
Putting aside the last chapter (for reasons described below), I found it an enjoyable read. It is very much an adventure story, very much Boys Own army hero stuff. (Look elsewhere if you were after a book of inspiring ideas, great invention, or intellectual insight.)
There was, though, one part of the story that really disappointed me: the ending! Living and fighting with gods, there was always going to be the problem of the ending, or, more exactly, what happens afterwards. Would Gid join the gods and finish his days in Asgard, would he be paid off and return home to his oft-mentioned and much-loved son and a better life in civvie street, or would there be some other reward or ending waiting or him? If you do not want to know how it turns out for Gid then stop reading now! BIG spoiler coming!!!
OK, so you are still with me. What happens is that he wakes in a hospital after the car crash and it appears it might all have been a dream. Sure, there have been some interesting coincidences in the real world whilst he was unconscious, but is that all they are? There are strong implications either way for it having been a dream and for it having been real, but the latter puts too much faith in the reader wanting it to have been true. I find this a real let-down, a cop-out, just like that whole season of Dallas when it turned out Bobby Ewing’s death was a dream. And that is a crying shame as the preceding story deserves a decent ending.
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