Fantasy novel inspired by Norse mythology
As I have mentioned several times on this blog, I have been a fan of this author for a long time. I adored the “Chocolat” series and have really enjoyed most of her original folklore and fairy tales. I also realy liked her psychological thrillers. However, this book has been on my shelf for years and years and I have not managed to read it. I really enjoy runes, and I really enjoy fantasy, but for some reason every time I have tried to start this book I just haven’t been able to get into it. It probably isn’t helped by this cover design which, despite the embossing and gold foil, remains, tragically, quite ugly. The illustrator has actually designed some pretty iconic book covers so I am not sure what happened here. Anyway, I am trying really hard to get through my to-read pile as part of the Mount TBR Reading Challenge and when I actually made my own set of runestones recently, I figured it was finally time to tackle this book once and for all.
“Runemarks” by Joanne Harris is a fantasy novel about a teenage girl called Maddy Smith who has always been an outcast in her small village Malbry. Maddy has a strange birthmark on her hand, a dark orange ruinmark in the shape of a rune. With the mark comes something else: an ability to wield magic. While the townsfolk discourage anything that requires any amount of imagination, when Maddy was small she met a travelling man called One-Eye. Every season, near a large hill with a red horse carved into it, One-Eye teaches her more about runes, lore, and cantrips from old times. When he is away, Maddy practises her magic in small ways such as chasing away goblins. However, when One-Eye finally returns, he has a special request: to open a way beneath Red Horse Hill and retrieve something that will change the world.
This book draws heavily on Norse mythology, especially the gods and realms that make up the Nine Worlds. While drawing on similar motifs and themes to many of her other stories, in this one, Harris explores a different style of writing. This book is action-packed with a focus on battles for overt power and the fate of the world rather than the subtler themes often touched on in her other work. I think my favourite parts of the book were actually the Examiners, their distorted morality and struggles for control over themselves and each other. Harris explores how fanaticism can breed intolerance and hate, echoing similar messages in some of her other work. Of all the characters in the book, I think perhaps my favourite was Ethelberta who underwent the most character development and was perhaps the most relatable character in the book.
However, in finally finishing this book I was reminded why I had so much trouble with it the other times I have read it. I’m not sure if I am just not very inspired by Norse mythology or if there just wasn’t the same kind of balance between the wonder of magic and horror or danger that you find in some other fantasy novels. Maddie’s time in the oppressive, stale tunnels of Red Horse Hill just felt relentless, and each setting after the next was more and more grim. I appreciate it is a dark story, but there was no respite; no Rivendell-equivalent where we could catch our breath, get to know the characters and understand what was to come next. I think ultimately Maddie’s world didn’t really seem like one that deserved to be saved. Her town was awful, the tunnels were awful, the Examiners and whatever was in the Outlands was awful, the realms they visited were awful and all the people and gods: also pretty awful. I didn’t come away from this book feeling inspired by humanity, I came away feeling like Maddie left a bad place for several that were arguably worse.
While the use of runes to cast spells was a fun way to conceive magic, so much time was spent explaining how the magic was limited that when it came down to it, it did seem quite implausible that the Good Guys (difficult at any time to ascertain due to constantly shifting alliances and morally grey and ambivalent gods) would even be strong enough to fight the final battle. I get that the gods are meant to be fickle and fallible, but I just wasn’t cheering for any of them.
Ultimately not my style of fantasy and I think perhaps Norse mythology is not for me.