Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell
I knew that Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, had other literary strings to her bow, for a few years ago she published two volumes of fantasy for teens based upon the Vikings and Norse myth called Runemarks and Runelight. I wondered if she’d ever do something similar for older readers … It’ll be no surprise to you to find out that she has. Published in February, The Gospel of Loki with its gorgeous cover went straight into the best-seller lists proving, I hope, that good story-telling transcends genre.
It’s interesting to note that this book is published under the name Joanne M. Harris. It’s not just an affectation to mimic the late Iain Banks who published his SF titles as Iain M. Banks, although surely there must be a tribute element there? Joanne’s middle name is Michèle – so it’s legitimate, and like Banks she has decided to distinguish her fantasy books, which are under a different publisher, from her mainstream ones.
Now, my knowledge of Norse myths is rather hazy at best – mostly coming from Wagner, so before embarking upon Harris’ novel, I read Ragnarök by A S Byatt, which neatly summarises the story of Asgard, the Norse Gods and their downfall, framed by the device of a child evacuee reading about them during WWII. I really enjoyed the Byatt and I’m glad that I read a conventional retelling of those stories, as it really helped to see both sides – however even Byatt’s narrator is taken with Loki, the clever, flame-haired outsider.
Harris’ novel lets Loki tell us his version of things, and he is such good company. He’s an absolute charmer with the gift of the gab, a problem-solver who will sort you out – but oftimes cause as many new ones as are resolved. Demon-born from chaos, he’s mercurial and Puckish, a very naughty schoolboy indeed, evading certain death or expulsion by the skin of his teeth countless times. The Goddesses love him and he loves them, but the Gods don’t! Even Odin, who adopted Loki as his brother because he’s useful, will only support him so far.
‘What do you want from me?’ I said.
‘I need your talents,’ said Odin. ‘The Vanir gave me their knowledge, but even runes aren’t everything. I brought this world out of blood and ice. I gave it rules and a purpose. Now I must protect what I’ve built, or see it slide back into anarchy. But Order cannot survive alone; its laws are too fixed; it cannot bend. Order is like ice that creeps, bringing life to a standstill. Now that we’re at peace again, Aesir and Vanir, the ice will creep back. Stagnation will come. My kingdom will fall into darkness. I cannot be seen to break my own rules. But I do need someone on my side who can break them for me when necessary.’
‘And what do I get in return, again?’
He grinned and said: ‘I’ll make you a god.’
Yes! – Loki is Thomas Cromwell to Odin’s Henry VIII.
Although being ‘the go-to man of Asgard’, Loki remains an outsider, never awarded his own halls in the great citadel. He can’t go back to the realm of chaos having thrown his lot in with the Gods of Asgard. Poor Loki just wants to be loved, but even his kids don’t love him – as well as twins with his wife, he fathered three with Angie, (Angrboda) a witch who lives in the woods. His daughter Hel becomes guardian of the Dead, his son Jormungand is the World Serpent, and Fenris a demon wolf; all three will have their part to play in the downfall of Asgard.
If there is one person Loki hates more than Thor, it’s Baldur the beautiful. Loki engineers his death in a trick reminiscent in a way of the ancient Greek tale of Achilles and his heel, and that’s the start of the end. It gets very serious from thereon in, as the prophecies from the oracle of Mimir’s head start to reveal everyone’s fate, Loki included.
The novel starts off in high spirits with Loki introducing us to the cast of characters, for instance: ‘Bragi – god of poetry. Two words: expect lutes.’ and ‘Freyja … Will sleep with practically anyone as long as jewellery is involved.’ He’s flippant, irreverent and streetwise – I liked him from the start. Whereas Byatt’s account was driven by the force of nature and is rather beautiful in its prose, Harris’ novel is about the characters: their personalities, motivations and failings. The language is in the vernacular, chatty, full of asides and it is often very funny.
We need to remember that the gods and goddesses of Asgard were just one nation founded from two previously warring tribes. The peace that exists between them and the inhabitants of the other lands is shaky right from the start. The gods of Asgard are too selfish and too boastful. In Harris’ version, without Loki’s negotiating skills they wouldn’t have lasted as long as they did. In letting Loki tell us of these capricious and self-obsessed figures, we learn that when the mighty fall, it’s with one heck of a crash.
Annabel Gaskell is New Fiction Editor of Shiny New Books. She thinks she’d have fallen for Loki too!
Joanne M. Harris, The Gospel of Loki (Gollancz: London 2014). 978-1483202351, 302pp., hardback.