Joanne Harris seems to have done the Iain Banks thing of adding an initial to differentiate her genres. This is apparently “the first adult epic fantasy novel from multi-million copy bestselling author Joanne M. Harris”, but in all her other novels, as far as I recall, she’s just Joanne Harris (I’ve only read Gentlemen and Players before now, but a quick Google of her novels does confirm my suspicions). Is this an actual Thing then? I thought it was just an Iain Banks Thing. Not that I’m objecting – the sign-posting is very handy if you don’t want to read non-SFF by accident – but it still strikes me as a little odd. If you don’t know the code, the code isn’t particularly helpful, after all.
Leaving that aside, I have been meaning to read this book for ages. Not just because Loki (though that is a good enough reason for anyone) but also because the cover really just sucked me in. I mean look at it. It’s just glorious. Not visible from the picture is the fact that it’s shiny too. Shiny and embossed and beautiful. Call me a sucker, but it got me.
I don’t know why it took me so long to buy it though. I have picked it up every time I have been in a bookshop for the last six months or more, and just… never got round to it. It doesn’t help that it’s £12.99, which is a bit steep for a 300 page paperback, but that shouldn’t have stopped me. Not when the lures of mythology, pretty covers and trickster gods were at play.
Firstly, I do not regret finally succumbing and buying it in the slightest. If I hadn’t bought it, I would perpetually be picking it up in bookshops and going “hummmm” and would finally give in another day. It was inevitable. But I’m not sure it was really worth the money. It’s a decent enough book, the writing is neat and lovely, but there’s nothing desperately grabbing about it. It doesn’t feel like it does anything new or really that good.
The premise is essentially just a rewrite of the myths relating to Loki from his perspective and in a modern, casual, slightly humorous/sarcastic tone. They’re all myths I know, so I was hoping for, and expecting from the prologue and blurb, something more… dramatically different, I guess? An epic recasting of the facts? Granted, if it had been too different, I would be whining now too, but it would be a different wine. The blurb says “this is the unofficial history of the world’s ultimate trickster” – so I expect a different tale to the myths. It’s the unofficial version, right, so we get the story behind the story style of things? The foreword does the same, but more so. The whole “stop right there, that’s the Authorized Version, now you get to hear my side” business. It leads you to expect things to be vastly different, everything subtly (or not) changed. But they’re really not. It’s the same myths, the same Loki. All you get in addition is the internal monologue and some excuses. Seriously, that’s it. There’s no great change, no glorious retelling. The writing style is just more modern and the gods are cast a bit less favourably. It’s just disappointing.
If this were just sold as a simple rewriting of the myths – no change of focus, just a modern retelling in modern words, then it has done its job. She’s got a lovely style and a lovely voice for Loki. She’s made him a bit too… not apologetic, that’s not quite it… but he’s always got an excuse. It makes him feel weak, not “the world’s ultimate trickster” at all. Other than that, great. She’s fudged the sense of timing in a way that plays out really well for a novel, squashing hundreds of years down into what feels like a tiny span, without vast gaps of empty space, and she’s fudged the multi-world perspective of the Norse cosmos so she doesn’t ever have to explain it, and loses the complexity of how the different realms really fit together. Paring it down like that focuses more on the actual characters and makes it feel more like a novel and less like an explanation, which works well for the style of narrative she’s aiming for. She fudges a lot of things, never really explaining them and cutting them down for simplicity, but in ways that work and keep the novel focussed just on the characters – which seems to be what she’s really going for, after all.
But in all honesty, the characters are a bit weak too. She never really delves into them, except for Loki, and even Loki is a bit unsatisfying. I think the conceit she’s going for is that we’re seeing them as Loki does, rather than fully fleshed out, and it’s a commentary on his perspective and how he deals with others. But I’m not really buying it? The narrator occasionally has descriptive bouts where he expounds on the temperament of Odin, but you never really get a grasp of that temperament in actual dialogue with him. Loki tells you things, but you can’t see or feel them for yourself in the way the story unfolds. It just feels a bit… half-baked.
A lot of the novel is like that. It’s stuck, not quite one thing and not quite another. The tone is very modern, referring to the gods as “the popular crowd” and casting a lot of the social interaction in a sort of secondary-school setting, but she keeps the actual setting true to the old Norse world and the setting of the original myths. She dabbles with the idea of the gods as celebrities, rather than deities, but never really explores what they actually are if they aren’t gods. She mentions runes and aspects and glam, but won’t get drawn into any extended descriptions of their use – they’re obviously magic, but we have no idea of what or how or why. She skims over a lot of explanations, timings and descriptions – she won’t get drawn into exposition about the Nine Worlds, and dips just a toe into the creation myth – but she still adds a little in here and there. But not enough. It keeps being unsatisfying and confused and stuck between different places. It’s not a mythic retelling and it’s not a fantasy novel and it’s not a character novel… and I’m not sure what it actually is. Which is a great shame. The premise is brilliant and she writes with a very easy to read flow. But it feels like she needs to pick her sides and stick to them, rather than wobbling down the middle and trying to do a bit of everything, never really pleasing anyone. It’s lead to a weak, empty feeling novel, when it could have been a glorious, bombastic rewrite from a brilliant main character. There are moments when her Loki has a lot of promise, where he almost feels like the ultimate trickster of the blurb and you really want to get behind him, his sarcasm and his quest for revenge. But then they slip away and everything just becomes dull. Boring. Unoriginal.
I’m really sad about it. I want to love it. I want to adore Loki, like I adored him in the myths I read as a child, but I just can’t. There’s not enough to him, not enough mischief or anger or magic or flair, nor enough emotion and pain. She has him speak of emotions as an alien thing he gained when fixed into human form by Odin, which I guess explains his haphazard relationship with them, but the explanation doesn’t really excuse it. It needs conviction. Even in dithering, she could dither more assertively, more extremely, and be more convincing in his emotions and then lack of them. The middle track of neither here nor there just doesn’t cut it.
I’ll probably read it again, hoping to feel differently, but I don’t think I’ll change my mind. There’s a lot of promise in trickster gods, as Neil Gaiman proves in Anansi Boys, because they offer a really compelling a complex character to draw on, more I think than any other mythological figures. Liminality (as well as being a Classics undergrad buzzword) is fascinating. But it needs to be done right. And here it isn’t. This is just sitting on the fence.