No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, May 31, 2012

2012/25: Runelight -- Joanne Harris

There's an old Northlands saying that goes like this: When lies don’t help, try telling the truth. Loki knew it well, of course, but much preferred his own version, which was: When lies don’t help, tell better lies. [location 8600]

It's three years after the (second) End of the World(s) (as recorded in Runemarks, the first in what I profoundly hope is an ongoing series riffing on Norse myth), and the repercussions of that apocalypse -- or, as Old Nan's rhyme has it, 'pucker-lips' -- are still rippling out across the world.

In the idyllic village of Malbry, Maddy Smith is still living with her father -- except that now it's her true father, the god Thor, who (like the other reincarnated Æsir gods) is struggling to adapt to mundane life. Thor is not wholly happy with the discovery that his prophesied son 'Modi' has turned out to be a female, Maddy. Little does he realise that the second son of the prophecy is not going to turn out entirely as hoped either.

Family matters aren't exactly working out for Loki, either: the Trickster finds himself embroiled once more in a steamy family saga, with ex-lovers refusing to accept perfectly reasonable explanations for his absence ("Be fair. I was dead --" "Being dead is no excuse!" (loc. 1185)), and children who are all too happy to acknowledge their parentage. "Dude. We're the Devourers." (loc 1144).

It is (as usual) a time of omens and portents. Old Nan's nonsense lullaby features three apocalyptic riders (Carnage, Treachery and Lunacy) and a nursery-rhyme muddling of myth and legend. Odin, old One-Eye, is dead, but his ravens (who appear, at least in Hugin's case, to have acquired broad Glaswegian accents) are still bright-eyed, curious, and prone to interfering in the affairs of mortals. It's the End of the bloody Worlds again, and Æsir and Vanir are ready to fight shoulder to shoulder -- assisted, this time, by the forces of Chaos. It's up to Loki to come up with a way to get them all to the battleground: to World's End, six hundred miles from Marbry, where Maggie Rede is living hand-to-mouth in the catacombs beneath the Universal City, hoarding the Book that is her most precious discovery, about to meet the man she'll marry.

What could possibly go wrong?

Runelight wouldn't be half as entertaining without a working knowledge of Norse myth and some idea of what happened in Runemarks. Armed with these, I found myself charmed, amused and full of admiration. Loki's tricks ring true: or possibly -- given how loaded a concept 'truth' is -- it's more accurate to say that they're in character, and would fit as easily into mythic canon as into the road-trip adventures of a motley crew of incarnated deities. Odin's long game is as carefully constructed as anything in American Gods, let alone in the original sagas. Maddy's conflicting loyalties (remember, she's not just half-god; she's a teenager, with all the emotional turmoil that can involve) are painfully familiar and have far-reaching consequences.

There are some likeable new characters (not least the short guy, Jolly, who is most definitely not a dwarf) and some interesting viewpoints -- for instance, the use of the word 'grooming' to describe Odin's role in Maddy's childhood. Though the term's commonly used now to describe paedophilia, it does have overtones of manipulation and hidden agendas, which are entirely apt. Harris doesn't deal in black and white: none of her characters are wholly good or wholly evil, and most of them -- god or mortal -- grow, or at least change, over the course of the novel.

It is also immensely, joyously funny, despite the odd apocalypse and the usual betrayals, misunderstandings, family feuds and nasty scraps of myth. Highly recommended.

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