Jessica Draper's Reviews > Runemarks

Runemarks by Joanne Harris
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Aug 14, 2009

it was ok
Recommended to Jessica by: Online review
Recommended for: Someone who liked Norse mythology but wasn't particularly picky.
Read in August, 2009 , read count: 1

** spoiler alert ** Fair-to-middling fantasy. It's nice to see a book based on Norse mythology, but it would've been nicer if the book had been better. Joanne Harris is British, and the tone is extremely British, which is odd with the Norse gods running around--as were the occasional anachronisms in the way the characters talked, modern sarcasm and irony ("Duh!") that clashed with the medieval/old-timey setup. It also felt like Joanne had written a couple of scenes before she had the entire storyline in mind or had chosen a 14-year-old girl, Maddy, as the protagonist--the tone and focus shifts suddenly, and the sequences feel "older" than the rest. For example, one of the big moments of the climactic confrontation turns on a weirdly modern "men and women have totally different expectations" conversation, complete with the woman thinking "Men!" This, while Chaos is busting loose and all the Nine Worlds are in peril? With all the focus shifts, it felt like Joanne couldn't quite decide which of the characters she wanted to concentrate on, or how she felt about them. She clearly likes Loki, however, which makes him one of the more engaging characters; because he's the Trickster, and supposed to be charming, she gave him more lively dialog and initiative.

The other Aesir and Vanir come across as little more than name dropping, there to fill out the myth more than to really "live"--on the other hand, their behavior certainly mirrored the myths. They are all stupid, treacherous, selfish, and argumentative; real people wouldn't have stayed together so long without actually either making friends or coming to blows, but that's very common for the allegorical figures in myths, right? You've got the pantheon, and each of the gods have to act in line with their assigned roles. Thus, Thor's always a big bruiser, Freya's vain, etc., and none of them have souls so much as they have parts to play. That two-dimensionality clashed with the way Joanne treated the human types, who did react emotionally, change their minds, and follow logical consequences. For example, the humans quickly learned to distrust and fear Skadi, who'd proved herself not just dangerous but a literal maneater, but by the end, the "gods" seemed to forget or disregard the fact that she'd betrayed and tried to kill them. Psychic dissonance!

The biggest problem with the plot came from these "because I said so" interactions. The emergence of a villain who not only had amazing telepathic powers but also managed to gather a vast army of followers threw me out of the story, because Joanne never explained how the heck he managed to do it all, or why anyone would follow him, or why nobody had noticed after all these years. Yeah, big surprise, but definitely on the "What?!?" side rather than the "Wow!!" side. Maddy's feeling of relief and happiness at the end of the book comes out of the same area of left field--after everything that's happened, her conclusion that she's finally got a "family" was absolutely bizarre. These people had spent the entire time either ignoring her, arguing, and trying to kill each other--and she's glad that she's part of their group?

Logic, clearly, is not the book's strong suit. But one brain-itching part of that illogic does come from the mythology itself. Everybody's fighting, Loki's afraid of getting killed, nobody wants to die--but we spend a fair amount of the book actually in Hel and Netherworld, where all the dead are stored (can't really say they're living there), and several of the Aesir (including Loki) have actually been dead before. So where does this fear of death come from? Given the setup, dying is more like getting misdirected--instead of ending up in Asgard, you're stuck in the Black Fortress until you can figure out a way to escape, or until somebody comes and frees you. Which makes the "deaths" of two characters in the final confrontation even weirder: if you go to Hel when you die, but you die in Hel, where does your soul end up? If there's no more than the Nine Worlds, where else is there to go? It doesn't say that the soul (or Aspect, to use the term in the book) is utterly destroyed, but it also doesn't explain how a soul can end up someplace other than the Underworld.

But then, metaphysics aren't really the book's strong suit. For the villainous Order, it feels like Joanne lazily copped bits from Anglicanism without the actual doctrinal underpinnings, and everybody uses "gods" as an exclamation/expletive--including the gods themselves--without any kind of reference to an actual divine belief. So why would everybody use that particular term? It's the kind of careless writing that hurt the book for me.
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