Ragnarok was never so much fun – Joanne Harris revisits Norse myth with the Gospel of Loki

The Gospel of Loki,
Joanne M Harris,
Gollancz

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Ah, Loki, for millennia known as the Trickster of the gods. Not the mightiest, not the wisest, not the most heroic or noble. Nor is he one of the Aesir, the deities lead by one-eyed Odin, the Allfather, or the Vanir, the other early gods Odin managed to bring into his fold (or bribed, cajoled or tricked into partnership, depending on which version of the Norse sagas and myths you read – Loki is not the only one capable of cunning and trickery…). He’s the schemer, the inventive trickster, impetuous and although invited into Asgard as Odin’s sworn blood-brother he knows and the other gods know (and he knows they know and is acutely aware of it) that he’s simply not one of them. And it rankles and festers inside him, driving him to various plots to undermine some of the gods, to settle scores and slights, which, of course, gets him into more trouble, makes him more distrusted, which in turn makes him even more irritated with his situation and so he thinks up more plans to trip them up…

…And you can see how that’s a situation that pretty much powers itself on upwards, forever escalating and you know it’s not going to end well, not for anyone, Loki included. And if you couldn’t guess that this endless spiral would lead to disaster (and you had no familiarity with the Norse legends) you would still know, because Loki tells you as you go along. This is his story, some of the great tales of Norse myth retold by Harris but from the perspective of the god who most often gets the blame for everything which goes wrong, by the other gods, by the Folk (humans), the Rock People, the dwarves… Well, pretty much everyone in creation. And he’s not happy with this situation, so this is his version of events, his justification for why he did what he did, how it all went down (as he sees it, anyway), from his first meeting with Odin to the slippery road that leads to Rangarok and the end of Worlds.

If you have read some of the great Norse myths, many rather handily preserved by Icelander’s centuries-long love of practising their calligraphy and vocabulary by painstakingly copying the sagas so even when original fragments have been lost there have been copies to maintain the stories, then you will recognise many of the tales Harris weaves into The Gospel of Loki. There’s the stealing of Sif’s beautiful tresses after a bit of hanky panky, which doesn’t exactly make her husband Thor very happy (and it doesn’t take much to get Thor roused to violent behaviour), leading Loki on a mission to the dwarves, those underground dwelling (and rather ugly) masters of the forge and crafts to flatter and cajole them into creating a temporary replacement for Sif’s hair, created from incredibly detailed, jointed strips of gold, woven with runes so it becomes like her hair and grows with it as it returns. To sweeten things after his faux-pas he also manages to make the dwarves create some other artefacts, all run-inscribed, magical devices (such as Odin’s spear) but being Loki he can’t stop there and it isn’t long before, blinded with the idea of more magical gifts, he schemes to get rival dwarves to try and outdo the others for craftsmanship (part of which leads to the forging on Mjolnir, the fabled battle-hammer of Thor) and, of course, he gets himself tied into knots with his head literally on the line…

Many of these tales from the myths occur in The Gospel of Loki, but now from the perspective of Loki, casting a different light on events even if you are fairly familiar with the original tales already, and if you aren’t then they function as a very accessible (and highly enjoyable) introduction for modern readers to some of the great myths and legends of Norse culture (also if you aren’t familiar with them I’d recommend following this with a read of The Prose Edda – there’s a lovely recent Penguin Classics edition which is a perfect primer). In lesser hands that’s what this might have been – a version of the great tales told in a way modern readers would find more palatable, and really that would still have been an interesting read. But Harris is too good to simply do that, she breathes life into all of the characters, from Chaos incarnate to dwarves to gods in a way that the sagas often don’t – the sagas spin great yarns but this is a novel and Harris takes those tales as a framework then fleshes out her characters and makes them, well, more human (sorry, gods of Asgard, it’s just a phrase), which gives another dimension to the events. Telling a great epic of the gods and heroes is fine (and has historically been one the drivers of the human urge for storytelling) but a novel lets you experience not just the big events but to get inside the characters, and that means some emotional investment, as well as perhaps framing those ancient stories in a way more suitable for some modern readers (a trick Ashok Banker also handled well with his Ramayana cycle).

And that, in turn, means you’re much more emotionally involved as the various events push ever forward to the seemingly inevitable ending of Ragnarok, twilight of the gods, Wagner playing in the background (metaphorically) as the Bi-frost crumbles, the walls of Asgard shatter and the gods fall in a final battle as the great wolf eats the sun and the moon; the end of the Worlds… Everything which begins has an ending, and in myths from many lands that doom is usually long foretold and seemingly inevitable, no matter how the gods and heroes may struggle to deflect fate. And is it all truly inevitable? Are prophecies always going to come to pass, or does the knowledge of the future – or a possible future – shape events, leading to decisions which will eventually lead to the conditions that bring prophecies to reality? Are they in effect self-fulfilling? And how much can you trust prophecies which come from a disembodied head kept in a well (separation of Mimir’s head from his body caused by one of Odin’s schemes, so really, as Loki says, should you trust him? Actually Loki says you should never trust an oracle, but then throughout there are many people Loki says you should never trust…). There’s a school of thought that argues Norse storytellers were well aware of Classical tales and that these influence some elements of the Norse tales, and if you’ve read any Classical Greek tales involving oracles you’ll doubtless see echoes of how double edged future knowledge can be, even to a god.

Loki himself is, appropriately enough given this is his tale, the most vibrantly realised of the characters here, and Harris has him down to a T; cheeky, quick to take offence, just as swift to plot some revenge scheme which will dig him even further into trouble, then take further umbrage at being vilified for his misdeeds (even when he knows he did actually do that naughty thing, he resents being blamed for it), never taking responsibility for his actions (just look at his monstrous children he pays little attention to after his dalliances, who will eventually play major roles in Ragnarok), always blaming others for his own faults (although in his defence, as he points out, he is Wildfire, born of Chaos, and Odin knew that when he brought him into Asgard. It is his nature, after all). But he’s also charming, quick-witted, silver-tongued, funny and frankly it’s hard to dislike him even when he is cooking up another revenge scheme or even plotting the downfall of Asgard.

And it isn’t as if Loki is the only one with selfish motiviations or who find using others for his own schemes comes to easily to him – it’s quite clear throughout that the other gods are just as shifty and duplicitous, happy to bask in glory (earned or otherwise), to take tribute from others, worship from the Folk, to lay out their own long-term plans that involve manipulating others (not least Odin, a crafty old bugger if ever there was, and quite ruthless). The difference is Loki know this is his character, it is his very nature as Wildfire, but he never really pretends to be anything else, while the gods like to present a veneer of honour over all their deeds. Never trust a god, as Loki would no doubt comment – you don’t get to be a god, especially the top god, the Allfather, without being a sneaky, ruthless character…


(Joanne Harris signing copies of the Gospel of Loki after a reading in Blackwell’s, Edinburgh)

It’s not all sneaking and subterfuge and plots within plots though – there are moment, just a few here and there, where briefly Loki feels content. A fishing trip with Odin, camping out, just the boys, drinking, travelling, hunting together away from all the god concerns for a while, he even becomes friendly, briefly, with Thor. And that makes the oncoming betrayals and Ragnarok all the more bitter, because while he plans vengeance with his dark allies (and is he using them or is he being used – in fact is everyone from gods down to chaos demons and giants all being played?) there’s that emotional barb, the moments when he did like being in shining Asgard, the fleeting moments where he and his blood brother Odin just hung out like old pals… And again its the emotional depth Harris puts into these ancient characters that takes this beyond just a great set of yarns and makes you actually care.

On her own site the author commented of the book that ”It’s not quite a retelling of the Norse myths, although I have drawn extensively from them. Instead it’s more like a version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in which Stoppard takes the story of Hamlet and retells it from behind the scenes, from another point of view,” and I think that’s also a good way of looking at this different perspective on some classic myths. Loki has been busy popping up in different media in the last few years – most obviously in the big-budget splendour of the Thor and Avengers movies, but he’s also been reborn in the Marvel comics and been brought to rather selfish and nasty life in the excellent Kiwi fantasy series The Almighty Johnsons. And here is that lovable rogue again grabbing a slice of the limelight, and again showing that actually in many ways, despite not being the most noble, strongest or wisest, he’s far more interesting than most of the other gods, and Harris gives us a Loki, full of obvious faults, but one who is never less than charming and fascinating. And, it has to be said, a hell of a lot of fun!

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

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Review: Royals – Masters of War, intriguing new alt-history series

The Royals: Masters of War #1
Rob Williams, Simon Coleby,
DC/Vertigo

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I’ve been looking forward to this new Vertigo series from Rob Williams and Simon Coleby for a wee while now – I chatted to Rob a few weeks ago about it (see here) and that just whetted my appetite. First issue hit racks with this week’s new releases and obviously it went straight onto my reading pile.

As you may know if you read the interview with Rob, this is an alternate history tale, mixing superpowered beings with the real events of World War Two. Of course superbeings in WW2 isn’t new – even during the war the Golden Age comics frequently had their characters like Captain America, Sub-Mariner, Superman etc fighting the Axis, more recently Ian Tregillis penned his fascinating Milkweed Triptych, a trio of novels involving an alternate WW2 where British spies fight against a secret Nazi Übermensch, scientifically created beings with powers (much recommended). What Rob and Simon bring to the mix is the eponymous royalty – in this reality there are superbeings, but they are all aristocrats, blue bloods, with the higher ranking, more pure breed being more powerful (so a prince or king for instance, is enormously powerful).

This opening issue takes place in 1940, as the Blitz is devastating British cities, the badly outnumbered RAF, ‘the few’, struggling to hold the might of the Luftwaffe at bay as they try to destroy Britain’s defences from the air as a prelude to the invasion everyone is sure will soon come. Could a few of the Royals use their powers to stop the Nazis in their tracks? Yes. But it isn’t that simple – superweapons rarely are, are they? Whether they take the form of splitting the atom or a superpowered being, there are always consequences, and in the case of the Royals there is an international treaty between ruling houses not to become involved on the battlefields of their nations. Because if one nation’s royals use their powers in a fight, others will join in and an already bloody situation will escalate rapidly to even more dangerous dimensions. Not hard to consider parallels with WMDs like nuclear weapons – used to end one years-long conflict that took vast numbers of lives and caused global destruction, but ushered in an era of ever escalating, finger on the trigger of Armageddon for decades, the promise of an even worse war born from that new power, which we narrowly avoided.

And some royals genuinely don’t care – the eldest son, Arthur, Prince of Wales, is a dissolute prig, happy to not be allowed to become involved (despite his huge powers), content to live a life of drink, women, comfort and who cares if the masses are being burned to death or buried beneath rubble in their own homes as the bombs fall. A prince who wouldn’t have been out of place in Blackadder III, more concerned for the luxuries his station confers than any sense of national duty and responsibility. But some of the young royals take their duty to their country more seriously:

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The East End’s burning, apparently. Although no-one will tell me the full extent of the damage. And there’s always so many more of their planes than the RAF boy… People are dying, Rose. Lots of people are dying, and we can’t do anything… We’re powerless…”

The troubled young Prince Henry borrows an idea from his royal namesake, Henry V, and changes clothes to go incognito among his people. He and his beloved Rose go into the Eest End, he carrying her as he flies over wartime London, a charming scene of two young people drifting through the air, Rose in his arms,  “like Peter Pan” she remarks. But the fairy tale allusions end brutally in grim, blood reality that confronts them as they land. Bombed out ruins that were once homes, fire raging, bodies of the dead burning in the street, exhausted ARP wardens, screaming children… People in agony and despair. Their people. His people. ..

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It’s all handled across a couple of pages, a montage of the horrors of the Blitz, with only two speech balloons throughout; most of it comes through from Coleby’s powerful visions of a burning, devastating London (all the more powerful, because we know this scenario isn’t fantasy, it’s drawn from the real history), until the young royals are left in tears at the sheer suffering they witness.

And enough is enough; Prince Harry’s rage and his desire to do his duty over-ride the royal pact not to become involved, and when the next flight of Luftwaffe bombers appears overhead and the RAF rise tiredly to meet them once more, he is at their head, flying right into them, a wrathful superbeing smashing through planes in righteous fury, blasting them from the skies. The papers rejoice at the royal family joining the war effort finally, but the king realises his hot-headed young son may, albeit for the finest reasons, have condemned the world to a much darker, bloodier, more costly battle…

It’s a gripping first issue, introducing the concept of this alternate 1940s and the idea of superpowered royals and the fragile accord that has kept their powers off the international board for years. Coleby’s art is terrific, with a nice eye for period details (those of us who grew up on Commando Books, Warlord, Victor, Battle etc always appreciate an artist who takes the trouble to get details like uniforms or aircraft from the period correct) and moody – the change in visual tone from the Palace to the hellish inferno of the East End is a kick to the senses (as it should be), while the moral dilemma of the patriotic young prince grabs your attention. I mean what would you do if you had those powers and knew you could defend your people from awful harm? But if you intervene then people with other powers in enemy nations will then join the fray, up the stakes…

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Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and we all know what paves the road to hell… Each issue will take place in a different year and pivotal moment for the war, and I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes, not least because this first issue opened with a glimpse of 1945 before flashing back to 1940’s beleaguered Britain. There’s often something very compelling about an alt-history story, and this is a cracker. Plus we get a superhero story, a good war tale and a touch of alt-history science fiction all in one tale. Bargain!

The World Has Gone to the Dogs – Rover Red Charlie

Rover Red Charlie #1

Garth Ennis, Michael Dipascale

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It’s the end of the world – but from the perspective of Man’s Best Friend. Everything has suddenly, irrevocably gone wrong with the human world, and like the canine protagonists in this tale we have no idea why, but it has and the people are turning on each other and on themselves, while the poor dogs look on, terrified, upset, uncomprehending as the world falls apart all around them, blood, violence, fire, as their former “feeders” (as the dogs refer to the humans) go insane and destroy themselves.

Ennis and Dipascale drop us right into this, with Charlie, a Collie and a Guide Dog (or Seeing Eye Dog as they call them in America), desperately trying to free himself – his former owner is now a burning corpse on a smashed underground station, others are in a similar conditions nearby, and he is still attached by his lead to the hand of his now dead owner. “I’m a dog! I’m a dog! I’m a dog!” he howls in despair – yes, the dogs here ‘talk’, although it seems only they understand one another (and obviously we understand their speech bubbles). Charlie’s shrieks of “I’m a dog!” are clearly, to any human in the story, barks, not words. Once you understand that the rhythm of the dog’s ‘speech’ becomes quite clear to anyone who’s spent time around our four legged friends.

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Suddenly through the flames comes Red, perhaps not the brightest canine in the pack (as his friend notes later, he sometimes has to sit and let this ‘thinks’ fill up a bit first) but loyal in that wonderful way that so many dogs are, charging in, leading his friends Rover and Max to help Charlie. Max, a rather up-himself pedigree German Shepherd decides Charlie is doomed and runs off to save himself, while Red and Rover strain with Charlie to bite through the lead and rescue their friend. Fleeing the burning remains of the station the dogs pause on their flight to safety as Red is very worried about his bottom and absolutely has to stop for a few seconds while a reluctant Charlie has to sniff it and make sure it is okay.

This piece of doggy etiquette out of the way they emerge onto the city streets, wondering what is going on, only to find the big picture is worse than they thought, the entire city aflame, humans everywhere going mad (save one who in a desperate last act tries to save the dogs, knowing he himself is as doomed as the other humans). A human confronted with this sudden destructive madness wouldn’t comprehend what was going on, so imagine the mind of a dog trying to grasp what’s going on… The poor animals are desperate to find a friendly ‘feeder’ who hasn’t gone mad, they will look after them, tell them what to do…

This could be a very cheesy, schmaltzy tale, but actually, given it focuses on ‘talking’ animals (well, we understand their ‘speech’, as I said it’s clear they aren’t actually talking in English) and has a buddy-movie feel to it, it is actually fairly light on the cheese. This is not one of those Disney ‘incredible journey’ stories. The decision to let us understand the dogs’ growls and barks via speech bubbles works well, allowing us to share their point of view of events, but it also works because Ennis nails the rhythms and structure so well, not to mention focusing on what you expect would be a domestic dog’s concerns (friendly owner to look after them, feed them, pet them, tell them when it is time to go somewhere) that you find yourself thinking yep, this is pretty much how I’d expect a dog to be thinking.

Of course that reminds me of the talking dog in Morrison and Quitely’s superb We3 (“bad dog, bad dog…”) but there the comparison ends with that story.  This is an unusual take on the end of the world, seen from the perspective of three dogs who are best friends – a buddy movie at the end of the world, but with canines (and what better friends can anyone, human or dog, have than a good dog?). The three main dogs are all clearly defined with their own characteristics, while Dipascale’s art manages the tricky combination of having to show human violence and mass destruction on city streets with believable dog poses and movements, and he manages this very well. The animals comes across very believably – the movements, the little stances with the eyes opened up big and head titled just so are familiar to anyone who has been around dogs, and of course to any animal lover it evokes that response that just makes you want to take care of them, and this digs us further into the story emotionally – the scene where a mad human attacks another dog is especially heartbreaking, somehow more shocking and sadder than the human on human violence, especially as Charlie barks “Feeders don’t hurt dogs! Feeders don’t hurt dogs!” as it happens, unable to understand how their friendly feeders have become suddenly crazed and violent.

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In some ways it is like a child’s perspective if the adult population went into destructive madness like this but young children didn’t, what would they make of it, how could they begin to comprehend what would confuse and terrify a full adult mind? They seem so vulnerable having to suddenly cope not only on their own but in a world gone so dangerously insane, and again this ties us even more emotionally to the story and characters. Non animal lovers probably won’t get the same levels of emotional investment in it, but those sorts of people clearly need to go out and stroke more warm, furry tummies anyway. I really didn’t know what to expect from this at all when I picked it up and here I found a rather charming, engaging read. One of the more unusual new comics releases.

Star Wars versus Star Trek…

This short film plays right into a long running subject that many in Geekdom have wondered about and which they only normally get to see either in fan fiction or in some (sometimes very heated!) debate – Star Trek versus Star Wars, and one of the great what ifs in science fiction. So we see the Enterprise appear floating over San Francisco Bay, dropping off some whales (as it does), but this is a San Francisco run by the Empire. Imperial stormtroopers on the street, an Imperial Walker takes pot shots at the Enterprise, a TIE Fighter launches at her and even a bulky Imperial Star Destroyer comes flying over the city to take a shot at the Big E, but the Federation ship’s superior shield technology shrugs it all off. So the Empire brings in the Death Star… Some cracking effects in this fun short:

Payload

Payload is a very well-executed short science fiction film by Stuart Willis, set in a near-future, dog-eat-dog dystopia a father and his two kids try to scratch a living in the shadow of a space elevator. Willis manages the difficult trick of cramming an interesting and complete narrative into a short timespace while still managing to give us quick character development sufficient to make us care and give us a good feel for this run-down future setting he has placed them in, well worth viewing:

Payload from Stu Willis on Vimeo.

Live long and prosper…

Love this photo of the first lady of Star Trek, Nichelle Nichols, with President Obama; nice to see he can do the Vulcan salute too, I suspect his predecessor Dubyah was still struggling with the notion of opposable thumbs too much to be able to do that. I wonder if he asked her about her encounter with Dr Martin Luther King Jr and how he told her to stay on the original show in the 60s even though she felt her character didn’t get many lines because just having a black face – and a woman too – on prime time TV in the US during that turbulent era, let alone one who was a senior bridge officer, was an important, viisble role model for young coloured Americans. And you didn’t say no to King. (via FP blog via Live for Films)

The 5th Doctor

Just been released, new version of Peter Davison’s 5th Doctor along with the same era’s Master incarnation (as played so well by the late Anthony Ainley). I really want these for my desk to go next to my Tom Baker figure; Baker then Davison were the main two Doctors when I was growing up, so they’re always going to be ‘my’ Docs.

And at the same time there’s a new figure of Davison’s Doctor as he first appeared right after the regeneration scene at the end of Baker’s swansong in Logopolis/start of Davison’s first story, Castrovalva (since the former lead directly into the latter), the Doctor now regenerated into his new form but still clad in the previous incarnation’s clothes (Baker’s later period costume of the long, burgundy coat and matching scarf):

The Doctor is in…

Brian Rimmer presents a time-travelling musical slide through more than forty years of theme music and opening sequences to the world’s longest running science fiction show, Doctor Who. I confess my favourite remains the Tom Baker era ‘time tunnel opening (the main Who era for me growing up), with the same ‘slit-scan’ technique used in the stargate sequence for 2001, but it’s fun to see them all back to back like this, from the early Hartnell era of 1963 (and the logo that looks like ‘Doctor Oho’ for a second before becoming ‘Who’) through to 2010′s revamped opening and music for Matt Smith’s Doctor. And through it all that immortal, iconic bass line, duh duh duh duh, duh duh duh duh, that’s been reworked endlessly across the decades by various arrangers for the show and by other musicians like Orbital and Pink Floyd; those bass lines were the signal to generations of kids that it was Saturday, tea-time and that meant marvellous adventures and scary monsters (and jelly babies). How lovely that it still means exactly that to a new generation of kids watching the new show and still loving it. (via BoingBoing)