Review: Runemarks by Joanne Harris

Runemarks cover art, artist unknown

A wide streak of humour runs through this inventive take on the Norse Myths starting with the character list in which each God has a little note explaining their grievances with Loki next to their names, and continuing right up to the end when Tyr, God of War, is reborn in the body of a diminutive goblin.

The story is set five hundred years after Ragnarok (also known as Tribulation or the end of the world), when the Nameless overthrew the Æsir and the Vanir with the power of the Word. It begins in the isolated village of Malbry, and the author captures perfectly the slightly claustrophobic and self-important pettiness that often radiates through such small communities. The wittily observed rivalries and superstitions of the villagers are sometimes contrasted and sometimes compared to those of the deposed Gods now either lurking distrustfully around the edges of society, sleeping or imprisoned in Netherworld.

The main character is a vivacious girl approaching womanhood, an outcast in Malbry due to the ruinmark (revealed to be a rune) on her palm and her ability to work glam or magic. Maddy Smith is a wonderful protagonist; she is stubborn as a mule and easy to empathise with. At turns neglected by her family or watched with a sharp eye by the local priest, she has grown up being tolerated rather than belonging and in many ways this book is about the people forced to the edges.

It has a fast-paced and well-constructed story; the reader is hurtled into a world of superstition and fairytales where the plot twists and turns without ever losing its way. We move from Malbry to World Below, a vast underground place filled with strange people and through which the river Dream cascades on its way to Hel, land of the dead, Netherworld and Chaos.

All of the characters, Human and otherwise, are written with insight and tongue in cheek humour so that even those that were only briefly mentioned felt fully formed.

Odin, once the Allfather, is introduced as a traveller often known as One Eye. He is a charming character, often full of plans that he perhaps should have told other people about before setting them into motion. Loki is the essence of mischief; a man on the edge with only himself to look out for, although later as more and more is learned about him it becomes clear that even the Trickster has regrets. Particularly funny is a scene in which he tells his version of certain events (the death of Baldur being one), although some of the humour certainly sprang from my prior knowledge of the Norse Myths.

Nat Parson is a passionate clergyman who slowly descends into madness. His wife Ethel is a sturdy and kind woman who nevertheless unveils some hidden depths later on. Adam Scattergood is the village bully, who has the unfortunate talent of being in all the wrong places at all the wrong times and suffers for it.

There is a fast talking goblin named Sugar-And-Sack with the same talent, although he eventually benefits. Skadi the huntress was coldly vengeful and the Vanir in general were delightfully disagreeable even with the knowledge that their world might be ending again. Mimir, the wise prophet, had all the charm of mud and the character of a malicious old man. Thor’s bluntheadedness worked well alongside Loki’s wit, and the revelation of the Thundererer’s greatest fear had me in stitches laughing. The queen of Hel, and its namesake, was a trickier character to grasp; unyielding in many ways and disinterested in plots and trickery, at least on the surface, she represented the utter finality of death.

There was a lot of simple and beautiful imagery that resonated on familiar levels; the clay horse on Red Horse Hill above Malbry seemed only a step away from the famous Uffington horse, and the idea of goblins or faeries building homes underneath hills is prevalent in many stories. Likewise, the Vanir asleep under the mountains tugged on half-forgotten myths in my mind. However, there is always a large enough twist of originality that it never feels as if the author is dependant on these stories, just that she is playing with them and inviting us in.

The all-powerful Nameless and the Order that it works through were scary in an amorphous way, seeking to control everything.; how to fight something that cannot be named and that works through such an all encompassing organisation?  Likewise, the Chaos of the netherworld was scary in an ungraspable way; the concepts of sense, logic, time and direction mean nothing there, and the more something is feared the stronger that thing grows.

They represented a pair of opposites at the extreme, both destructive if allowed too much sway, and could easily be viewed as forces at work in most of us as humans.

Death and rebirth are also explored throughout this book, on large and small scales. That the worlds have been destroyed and rebuilt before and will be destroyed and rebuilt again is common knowledge among the Gods, and they consider it part of the natural order of things. Grief is gently examined, and the struggle of watching everything change and fall apart is brought up in many different moments.

I was particularly fond of the way in which magic is worked in this novel; it has to be shaped through sounds or shapes of the hand, although the hand-shapes represent runes. It took a realistic amount of effort, and what could be achieved depended on how much energy one had, how much glam one was capable of in the first place and what could be imagined.

There is little to be critical of; the writing style was clear and straightforward with vivid descriptions, and well suited to the swift storytelling and the target audience (a bit younger than me). There were some very jarring flashbacks at the beginning, and some familiarity with the Norse Myths added another level of depth; however the flashbacks smoothed out very soon and there was a fine amount of interwoven depths without the extra knowledge. The MacGuffin was glaringly obvious, but that was forgivable.

Overall an absorbing and enjoyable ride, recommended for anyone with a love of fairytale and in search of a laugh with some depth.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Geoff Palmer's Right Knee
    Mar 25, 2012 @ 23:00:04

    But how does it compare to her previous books? eg Chocolat? Is there a potential role for Johnny Depp? And what impact do you think growing up in Huddersfield had on her creative juices?


    • Meredith
      Mar 26, 2012 @ 10:10:28

      I have not read any other books by Joanne Harris, so I can’t compare it. As for Johnny Depp… I’m sure he can fit in there somewhere 🙂


  2. Trackback: REVIEW: Gospel og Loki by Joanne M. Harris | Meredith Debonnaire

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