Monday, November 22, 2010

2010/81: Runemarks -- Joanne Harris

Seven o'clock on a Monday morning, five hundred years after the End of the World, and goblins had been at the cellar again. (p.3)
... which gets my award for the best opening line I've read all year.

Maddy Smith, fourteen and restless, lives in the small village of Malbry, just a couple of miles from goblin-infested Red Horse Hill. She's a misfit, accused of witchcraft (though that same witchcraft comes in handy when goblins sour the milk or break into the church) and ostracised for the 'ruinmark' on her hand: her only true friend is a mysterious vagabond, One-Eye, who has spent many summers teaching Maddy the history of the world, abridged. It's five hundred years since the 'final battle' of Ragnarok, when the old gods (the 'Seer-folk') were defeated and the puritanical Order came into being.

Your average fantasy-savvy teenager (this book's published as YA) will recognise One-Eye and Lucky before Maddy does. There are quite a few surprises along the way, though, as Maddy finds herself on an Epic Quest (TM) to rescue the oracle known as the Whisperer and aid the gods in their efforts to prevent the Nine Worlds from descending into chaos.

Runemarks has its roots in Harris's very first novel, the sprawling and 'unpublishable' Witchlight which she began while at school. It seems, from interviews and essays (e.g. this, on the author's site) to have been one of those projects that's the author's secret love, even while that author is writing best-selling novels with a touch of magic. Harris's sheer enthusiasm for her setting, and the depth of her characterisation (for characters do evolve considerable depth when they're being written over decades) makes Runemarks compelling, pacy and incredibly good fun. It's also extremely funny, and features my favourite character from the Norse pantheon in all his 'volatile ... and nasty' glory.

"So what you're saying is I shouldn't play with fire," [Maddy] said at last.
"Of course you should," said One-Eye gently. "But don't be surprised if the fire plays back." (p.35)

Maddy is likeable, quick-witted and competent: her discoveries about her friend, the world, and herself drive one layer of the book. There's a parallel thread concerning the Order and the ineffable Nameless, and their attempts to enforce their own kind of magic (the Word) on the world(s). There is also plenty of darkness -- Harris doesn't shy from the nastier bits of Norse myth -- and a pot-bellied pig. Absolutely delightful, and I'm already eager to read the sequel.

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