Saturday, 29 March 2008

RUNEMARKS Joanne Harris

Runemarks Joanne Harris, Doubleday, 504 pages, 2007, paperback, NZ$34.99
ISBN 978-0-385-61131-2
[NZ agents: Random House]

It isn’t easy being a god, you know. You have to take responsibility. It isn’t all about golden thrones and castles in the clouds.”

This is a marvellous novel for young and old alike: richly inventive, witty and constantly surprising. Young Maddy Smith, who feels herself an outsider in her village, “always blamed and never thanked,” becomes involved with Outlander, the mysterious one-eyed wanderer who teaches her to read the runes. Searching for her destiny and the guidance of the oracle known as The Whisperer, Maddy tunnels into the eye of a hillside horse-carving and enters the Underworld. What follows is the rambunctious, funny, sad and above all readable saga of a young girl’s journey into the world of the Norse gods.

Five centuries have passed since the old gods were defeated in the Winter War, and fire and ice cleansed the world, but the runes still have supernatural power and Maddy finds she can make use of them. Others – goblins, humans and even pigs - are interested in the flickering remnants of the gods. Nat is a member of The Order, a group that is determined to create the rule of absolute Law and Order by destroying the gods. Followers of The Order believe that by removing the uncertainty represented by the supernatural, they will ensure the triumph of order over chaos. Will this mean the final end of everything?

Joanne Harris (author of Chocolat) knows how to create strong characters, so Maddy and Nat become vivid personalities; we really want to know what they will do next. The result is a steady series of exciting revelations and discoveries.

As a final terrible confrontation threatens, the reader becomes aware that some of the characters are reflecting the attitudes and behaviour of the old gods. Maddy soon realises that Odin and Loki the trickster may be present in disguised form – and they’re not the only ones. Many of the people (and beings) that Maddy encounters are not what they appear to be.

Readers who know their Norse mythology will gain extra pleasure from this richly detailed story but helpful diagrams and a list of characters ensure there is no confusion. Even those who have never heard of Thor will be intrigued by his response when he faces ten thousand living-dead warriors on the plains of Hel: “Uh-oh, here it comes.”

In all senses of the word, Runemarks is charming.

Trevor Agnew

This review first appeared in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand on 1st December 2007.

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