Using the word versatile to describe Neil Gaiman is a bit like using the word crooked to describe a politician or talented to describe the holder of a world record for most pies eaten in an hour. It just seems obvious.
But think about it. Gaiman has written short stories and novels and all the lengths of fiction in between. He’s written comics/graphic novels. He writes for children and for adults, and picture books for both to boot. There is just nothing this man does not write. It’s a good thing he’s so good at it, because otherwise he would be annoying. Like Snooki. He would be the Snooki of the literary world.
Fortunately for all of us, Gaiman’s versatility is plain as day, and Odd and the Frost Giants showcases his dab hand at writing novels for children. This has many of Gaiman hallmarks: genuine danger for the protagonists, a mixture of light and darkness, and whimsical advice from more powerful beings. Ultimately Gaiman seems to be hinting at the idea that there is something intrinsic to human beings that makes us special and fascinating creatures when it comes to our ability to do great things, right and wrong.
This is, obviously, inspired by Norse myths. That means it has a special connection to my own childhood, because the Norse mythology was always the one I loved the most as a kid. I tore through the many, many books on Greek mythology in the school library, and the sizable collection of books on Egyptian mythology. I even read the knockoff reboot of Greek mythology called Roman mythology. And one time my mom’s friend gave me a university textbook full of Greek myths, and I was a very happy 10-year-old indeed. (I don’t know if I was 10. I was young. Probably shouldn’t have been reading a university textbook. My parents didn’t believe in academic training wheels. It’s why I compulsively write book reviews and teach math and English today. Damn them.)
And when I had exhausted all that, I discovered the two or three books on Norse mythology in my school library. Then I fell in love. In particular I love the Norse eschatology, and the idea that even the gods themselves must one day die. It is so fitting, and so interesting, the way this is all laid out as an epic story.
Gaiman, of course, can’t really get into all the details in a short book like this. Indeed, Odd and the Frost Giants does not lean heavily on its Norse roots. Obviously there are Frost Giants. Odin, Thor, and Loki make appearances, as does Freya. But for the most part, this is Norse Lite—and that’s fine. What matters instead is the type of adventure that Odd has, and what he learns along the way.
When we first meet Odd, he is at a loss what to do with himself. Dad is dead, mom remarried, his leg crushed from an accident of his own making. Odd really feels out of place. So he wanders away from the village, hoping never to come back, until he stumbles on to a problem the gods themselves can’t seem to figure out. He can solve the problem (duh, he’s the protagonist!)—but not because he is the Chosen One. No, it’s because he simply doesn’t have the functional fixedness that the gods do. He approaches the problem from a new angle.
On a related note, I really like the resolution. It seems a little pat and easy, the way Odd talks the giant down. Then again, think about what that says to a child. It says you don’t have to be the strongest person to prevail. You don’t have to use violence or force to get your way. You just have to be clever, to think and consider all the angles. Odd isn’t a big, strong Viking warrior, or a badass wizard, or even a particularly educated person.
This is a pretty powerful, positive message for children. You can help out gods—the beings who, you know, shaped the face of Midgard during these epic wars with the giants—just by being who you are!
The book doesn’t shy away from loss. As I said above, the book opens with the loss of Odd’s father. This, too, is typical Gaiman: a reminder that the goodness in our world, the things we hold dear and celebrate, are made all the sweeter by the bad. The two go hand in hand, one made all the more precious because of the other.