Review of Norse Code by Greg Van Eekhout
by Greg Van Eekhout
The cover of Norse Code is misleading. It has a classic "urban fantasy" pose, the woman holding a phallic weapon and looking over her shoulder at the reader. Really, Norse Code is nothing like the cover or the description on the back of the book. Although it begins like other urban fantasy books, it quickly becomes something different. It is an epic tale focused through the lens of postmodern apocalypse, where metaphor becomes literal, and gods are as mortal as men.
When I went through my mythology phase as a child, I gobbled up the Norse myths as much as I did Greek, Roman, etc. In fact, Norse mythology has a special place in my heart. Scandinavian myth has a wonderful knack for the epic. Ragnarok is the best apocalypse myth. Both the Greek and Norse gods are very human in their foibles, but the Norse gods have the advantage of being a part of this epic cycle of song and story … they know how they will die (with the exception of Hermod) or survive. They know how their world will end, that this end is inevitable, and that a new world will arise from the ashes.
Greg van Eekhout plays on this theme well, turning Ragnarok into an opportunity for reflection on the mortality of all things. Even gods can die. And encoded in everything's beginning is also its end, or, as Frigg puts it:
From its very first moment, the world has been dying, just as an infant's first breath makes certain its last. I am life in renewal, and I crave the new green world to come after Ragnarok. To tail against the end is merely preserving a corpse.
So here we are thinking the end of the world is a Very Bad Thing—or is it? Perhaps Ragnarok is a time for renewal, a time for the world to be reborn. Suddenly the apocalypse has a moral ambiguity!
The two protagonists sort of fall into the job of stopping Ragnarok. Each has a personal stake: Mist wants to save her sister from Helheim; Hermod is concerned with saving his family from their prophesied deaths. Although both are steeped in the mythology surrounding the apocalypse, neither is very competent in using this as an advantage. In essence, the world's best hope does the job half-assed.
Speaking of which, the cover also presents Mist as the now stereotypical kickass urban fantasy heroine, which isn't accurate either. Mist is a competent fighter and plays a major role in the plot. She does not quite have the skill level to take the title "kickass" though. She is more of a sidekick to Hermod (whom I like better anyway). And there's nothing wrong with this (just as there's nothing wrong with being kickass). For Norse Code, it works.
Hermod, too, is not what one would expect from a god. Van Eekhout is not the first to portray a god as apathetic and a little postmodern in his perspective on life. However, I like how Hermod grows over the course of the novel. At first he is very apathetic, but helping Mist embroils him in Ragnarok and makes him realize that he cannot stand by this time. Hermod's decision to make a role for himself—even as everyone tells him that stopping Ragnarok is hopeless—is an important turning point.
Van Eekhout gives us a lot of background on Hermod. We get a clear sense of his role in initiating Ragnarok and his character as a god, why he avoids his fellow Aesir and "bums around" Midgard. This is one reason I prefer him over Mist, who gets considerably less character development. We learn that she has a sister, that they were both gunned down outside a convenience store, that their parents and grandmother are dead, and that Mist used to be an MBA student named Kathy. That's about it. There are no flashbacks; even Mist's "creation myth," if you will, is told more secondhand than as a proper flashback. As a result, Mist feels like a more ephemeral character than she is.
Norse Code drags its heels in other respects as well. The pacing is problematic, even haphazard. This is especially difficult to ignore during the climactic battle, which appears abruptly and ends just as abruptly. It is very chaotic—but not in a good way—with too many disparate plot elements vying for space on the page. Once again, Mist seems relegated to a supporting role, taking out one of the minor antagonists while Hermod tries (several times) to derail the apocalypse.
Of course, the end of the world is a downer, and as a book ending, it's really a downer. Van Eekhout sidesteps Ragnarok nicely, managing to simultaneously evince the "you can buck destiny" theme without hitting too many clichés. And that impresses me, because I do not think it is possible to avoid the apocalypse in an apocalyptic novel without being some kind of trite. So van Eekhout picked the right kind.
There are some great moments in Norse Code, like this one:
"So Vidar's got the eye," Mist said, "but we've got the sword. As long as Vidar doesn't have both, we're okay?"
"Vidar's not that stupid," Hugin said. "The nothing in the Sword of Seven is a tricky substance to work with, but there's no shortage of nothing."
"In addition to the Sword of Seven," Munin piped in, "he commissioned an Ax of Seven, a Spear of Seven, a Hammer of Seven, a Crude Bludgeon of Seven . . . His backup arsenal of Seven is quite extensive."
I love this subversion of Vidar as a classic villain—he has backup apocalypse-triggering weapons! There are clever bits of dialogue like this throughout the book.
On the flip side, there something high fantasy about Norse Code, and it is very attractive—and obvious, despite the packaging. Yet it seems to be at war with lighter aspects of the book, as if van Eekhout has trouble synthesizing the two sides into a unified voice.