My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I always enjoy reading Joanne Harris books. There’s something about them, about the language she uses that draws you in, even if you’re squirming uncomfortably at the increasingly dark subject matter. When I read Blueeyedboy, I didn’t feel like a reader; more like an addict or a fish wriggling on a hook, knowing it’s being drawn in to an inevitable unhappy ending but being desperate to hang on for the payoff anyway.
Runemarks isn’t as dark as some of her works; it’s aimed at the YA market, and probably at the younger end of it, I’d say. That’s not to say that everyone skips around happily in a cosy bucolic Shire-like land, more that the action and frightening aspects feel a bit muted. Which overall isn’t a bad thing, given the audience and there’s still plenty of drama and intrigue to pull the adult reader along.
Drawing on Norse mythology, the story opens with Maddy, a 14 year old girl with an odd birthmark on one hand and a strange talent for magic that puts her at odds with most of her village, including the bitterminded Nat Parson who resents her talent and her refusal to follow the teachings of his church, the Order. But though the rest of the villagers are happy to ostracise her when it suits them, they’re quick enough to call for her when her unique skills are needed. And so she finds herself in the cellar of the Inn one day, dealing with an infestation of goblins from The Hill nearby. But a summoning charm gone wrong leads to unexpected and life changing consequences for Maddy and the village.
Without wanting to give away the plot, I can safely tell you that many of the major players of Norse mythology take a turn here and Joanne Harris pleasingly preserves the sense of whimsy and humanity found in the original folklore. They might have special powers, but these Gods are certainly not infallible, let alone ineffable. They burst off the page in a riot of shouting, gesturing and general dysfunctional behaviour that would put an episode of Eastenders to shame, but I really loved that they were shown as vital, lively and well, humanlike, I suppose.
Plots about coming of age, the conflicts many extended families experience when they spend a lot of time together and small town conservatism are woven cleverly with wider storylines about the nature of order versus chaos and the loosely overarching established narrative of the Norse Gods. With so many different threads to keep hold of, each element is combined well and you don’t get a sense of loose ends or that the story has been clumsily altered to make everything fit; it all sits smoothly as if designed that way.
My only slight disappointment with the book was that Maddy started off sparky and characterfully, but I felt there was so much else going on that her own colours dimmed a bit in competition with various gods and goddesses, goblins and other strange folk; I think I would have preferred her to have taken more of a centre stage. However, this is the first in a series and so I’m hopeful that the follow-up, Runelight, will give her more of a chance to shine. I’ll also definitely be checking out her latest Norse-inspired novel, this time aimed at adults, The Gospel of Loki, which is released next week (13th February) in ebook format and 20th February in hardback.
Recommended for: Readers who’ve shied away from Norse fantasy because they’re worried it’s all unrelenting blood, murder and Ragnarok fire; Joanne Harris will give you a great example of the lighter, more humourful side of the mythology without it feeling entirely frivolous.