First of all, let’s be clear: Norse mythology is hella cool.
In his introduction to Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman echoes what draws me to it. Like him, I was entranced by the stories of the Norse gods from an early age. I remember vividly my elementary school library having this big, thick book on Norse mythology full of illustrations. When I went through my mythology phase, I tolerated the Greek gods and occasionally talked to the Egyptians, but Norse mythology was what really got me obsessed. The tragic nature of these gods’ stories, and the built-in ending of Ragnarok, just left me hooked. When I rediscovered my love of fantasy many years later, I think the preferences I developed from reading those first stories really influenced the way I read fantasy.
So Odin, Thor, Loki, and I are old friends. When I heard Gaiman had retold some of these stories, almost “from scratch”, if you will, by consulting some of the closest stuff we have to source material, I was intrigued. I’ll inhale pretty much anything Gaiman writes, so this book was a no-brainer.
Norse Mythology has the curious quality of probably appealing even to people who eschew Gaiman’s other works as well as Gaiman fans like myself. It’s not quite a departure from his style—there’s still traces of Gaiman in this—but he has layered another style atop his own. It’s as if the narrator is telling these stories orally to the audience, with a certain stilted cadence reminiscent of Ye Olde Times but never strong enough to become distracting.
The stories flow into one another, discrete yet inseparable. This isn’t an anthology, nor is it a novel. (Trust Gaiman to write books that don’t fit easily into my shelves here on Goodreads.) You can safely read this one story at a time, over a long time, or virtually all at once. And you could dip into it at different intervals, but like a music album, there’s a more cohesive meaning when you read it from beginning to end.
There’s little I have to say that’s critical of this book, but it still didn’t wow me the way I want a five-star book to do. Mostly I think I’m just used to reading stories with far more developed characters. While I understand why Gaiman doesn’t flesh out his gods more than he does, it’s just not as satisfying. If anything this just makes me want to read American Gods or Anansi Boys again—Mr. Wednesday was Odin personified, and therefore even more interesting. I think, in striving for technical perfection, Gaiman almost doesn’t infuse this book with enough of a soul. (There are some pretty good moments, that being said. I think he nails the self-destructive qualities of Loki perfectly.)
Norse Mythology is the kind of book you should buy for that friend who “doesn’t like that fantasy stuff” but likes myths and legends. Or maybe someone who watched the Marvel Thor movies one too many times and needs a lesson in where Thor’s really from. This is not the most beautiful, or thought-provoking, or moving of Gaiman’s works. But it was a nice way to pass a few evenings, and really, that’s sometimes all you need from a book.