Runemarks by Joanne Harris

Rating 9.0/10
A great addition to the fantasy books that integrate mythology.

Maddy Smith has always been an outsider. Born with a rusty-coloured rune on her hand - what the villagers call a ruinmark - she is scarred by this symbol of the old gods, a sign of magic.

And everyone known that magic is dangerous. Except for Maddy who thinks it’s rather fun. Until now. For suddenly her friend One-Eye, a rascally Outlander, want her to open Red Horse Hill and descend into World Below - a world filled with goblins and far worse - to retrieve a relic of the old gods...

First published in 2007, Runemarks is a piece of crossover fantasy, designed to appeal to both adults and children, written by prolific, best-selling English author, Joanne Harris. Harris’ first two published works in the late 1990’s were gothic fantasy, but achieved only limited success. However, she shot to fame in 1999 with her gastromance novel, Chocolat, which sold over a million copies and was made into an Oscar nominated film in 2000. Since then she has written an eclectic genre mix of bestsellers including two sequels to Chocolat, some cookbooks (co-written with Fran Warde) and some psychological thrillers including Gentlemen and Players and Blueeyedboy.

Runemarks was her first children’s novel and also her first venture into Epic Fantasy. The location for the story is the Nine Worlds and the story itself draws heavily on Norse mythology.

When I received this book to review, I have to admit I was curious, it is unusual (although not unheard of) for established, world renowned authors to switch genre and target audience. I was therefore interested to see if Harris could successfully write epic fantasy, understanding and using enough of the genre’s conventions to be accepted, whilst being original enough to stand out from the crowd.

Runemarks has a number of maps at the front of the book and without reading a single word of the text inside, or on the back cover, the reader knows that this is going to be fantasy. The layout of the map of the Nine Worlds communicates this very effectively. In addition, those who are knowledgeable about Norse myths will immediately pick up that aspect due to the inclusion of Asgard, Yggdrasil (the world tree) and the Rainbow Bridge.

The maps are followed by a detailed character list, complete with brief descriptions and then finally a list of Runes with their meanings. Armed with this handy reference tool, the reader can then jump into the story and meet the heroine, Maddy, who is the daughter of the village smith. We learn very early on that Maddy is shunned due to her ‘ruinmark’ and an outcast in the village (unless it suits them because she is needed, of course).

There is a minor irritation right at the start of the first chapter, because on the second page there is a picture of the ‘ruinmark’ on Maddy’s hand, but flicking back to the list of runes so helpfully provided at the start, it isn’t there. The reason for that becomes apparent later in the story, but it did puzzle and slightly annoy me at the time.

The story is set 500 years after Ragnarok and the defeat of the old gods, which resulted in the creation of a new Order and follows Maddy as she journeys around some of the Nine Worlds, interacting with a number of different characters who may or may not be what they seem. It is not a spoiler to say that a number of the old Norse Pantheon put in an appearance, including Loki, Odin and Thor, but there are also some of the less well known characters from Norse mythology – Skadi the Huntress, Hel and the world serpent, Jormungandr amongst others.

It is always tricky for an author to write someone else’s characters, because they come with their own expectations and sometimes significant baggage. There are also quite clear parameters that you have to operate within, or you run the risk of alienating readers; – for example, Thor is probably the best known of the Norse Gods nowadays thanks to Marvel and The Avengers, so the moment Thor is mentioned, many readers will have a preconceived expectation of the way he will look and behave.

Harris’ passion for Norse mythology comes through quite clearly in the book and the way she keeps to the core of those legendary characters, whilst putting her own spin on their personalities is very good. That said, some of the minor gods are quite one dimensional and could have used a little more development (or a few less gods), there are a couple whose only function appears to be to make up the numbers. The same is true with some of the humans as well, but the main characters are well drawn, especially Loki, who is excellent, and the goblin, Sugar and Sack who deserves a book of his own - a wonderful character.

The story itself moves along at a fair pace, slightly too fast in the first half of the book, which does not allow for proper world building or character development. Harris skims over some aspects of the tale, which gives it a slightly unrealistic feel. For example, she could have done far more with the Order, the Word and the Examiner, who had the potential to be a decent low level villain is never given the chance, because much more powerful characters appear too early, changing the focus. It does make it feel a bit rushed and whilst the end is good, I think that this book should actually have been two volumes rather than one, which would have allowed some of the characters to fully develop – the Examiner, Skadi, Nat and Adam to name a few. Plus Maddy seems to go from novice to interacting with the Gods without any intermediate learning stage. I know there is a sequel Runelight, but this volume should have been two to start with to allow her to grow and develop properly, rather than suddenly having god-like powers early in the book.

That said, once Loki, Maddy and the Whisperer start their journey towards the underworld, it really picks up. Everything from that point on is excellent, well written and described, thoroughly enjoyable and I loved it. Although the style is very different, it put me in mind of the Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix and would definitely be enjoyed by fans of Nix’s work.

In conclusion, this is a decent stab at a first fantasy novel. There is no doubt that Joanne Harris is extremely skilled as a writer and Runemarks has a fantastic overall plot, but when writing Epic Fantasy, world building and character development are just as important as the outcome and they are slightly lacking in this instance.

Had she spent more time on those, this would have been ranked alongside the best in the genre. As it is – it’s a good read and a decent introduction to Norse mythology for those who have not encountered it before, but with a little more patience, something brilliant would have been crafted.
Stuart E Wise, 8.7/10

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So far I have read about vampires, werewolves, heavenly angels, hells demons, the Greek Pantheon and many other pantheons created by authors themselves. But I haven’t read anything about Norse mythology and the accompanying pantheon. I found this one of the most appealing aspects of Runemarks. I did have some reservations about the Norse mythology, where all the other themes have been proven to work in the majority of the cases. Introducing this whole new theme could have backfired since not many people are familiar with it. Well... I have to say that this was no problem at all. Instead with Runemarks, Joanne Harris has ventured a new direction, providing a book with freshly new ideas.

Runemarks picks up pretty lightly with the introduction of Maddy in the village of Maldry. She is put down as an outsider and marked as a scapegoat. Her ruinmark frightens the other villagers. With the other villagers being scared of Maddy there is hardly any dialogue featured between her and other villagers. This is corrected by her adventurous spirit, where she meets up with goblins. The goblins proved early on to be a nice addition and in the end it was just funny and brilliantly plotted on how the goblin, Sugar-and-Sack, pulls it off.

With already a few hints thrown into the story about runes and magic, the introduction of One-Eye really sets the pace for Runemarks. One-Eye teaches Maddy more about runes and their uses as he comes back once a year to the village of Maldry. However he always asks one question: Has anything happened in the past year? While progressing in the book this question becomes more clear and gives more feeling to the past and what is hidden underneath Red Horse Hill.

An integral part of Runemarks is the addition of the Norse pantheon into the story. I’m not that familiar with the Norse gods so I did a quick Google search and I do think that the major players are all present in the story. From the quick reads I could make out a general personality sketch but if they are as true to their historical personalities I do not know. In Runemarks the gods: Odin, Loki, Thor, Skadi and Njord and others make their appearance. The Norse gods are also divided into the Aesir and Vanir. Odin, Loki and Skadi play a more important role than the others. Loki in the myths is a trickster and joker and this personality is just perfectly reflected into Runemarks, in the ending I did get a feeling that even though being a trickster he showed compassion. Odin, having an important job in the plotline, is portrayed as an old and weary wanderer, and he shows that the runic magic cannot save you from every situation. Odin and Loki are both Aesir, in the myths there was a war between Aesir and Vanir and this struggle is also partially shown in Runemarks. Skadi, a Vanir, is trying to kill both Loki and Odin. But from the Vanir she is actually the only really persuaded to fight Odin and Loki, and in this she is characterized as a evil villain pretty nicely. This feeling for me was bolstered by her ability of being able to shapeshift in a large white wolf. But Skadi is not the ultimate villain here. There is more.

In the advent of Ragnarok, a new group came to power, “the Order”. This group lives and dies by the “Good Book”. One cool aspect was the “the Word”, everyone fears this even the gods... Using the Order integrated with something totally unexpected, The Whisperer, gave a grand plotline that was riddle with twists.

There is just one more thing that I just have to highlight. Magic. As I mentioned before I’m always a big fan of magic. Being it flashy theatrical or mind nudging obscure, but new ideas are always welcome. Recently I got to know the Sattva magic in Land of Hope and Glory. What would the Norse gods be without their own sort of magic? This time created by runes, drawing them and even throwing them. Just marvelous. Although it sometimes felt that there was a bit too much casting or drawing going on. The describing of how they came to life with the resonating and glowing was - maybe not original - but it is how it should be.

With Runemarks Joanne Harris has written a great addition to the fantasy books that integrate mythology. Norse mythology is something that I was not that familiar with but I was pleased with how everything came together in the end. In Runemarks you are invited to travel between the Nine Worlds from the World above to the Netherworld.
Jasper de Joode, 9.2/10

This Runemarks book review was written by and Jasper de Joode

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