By Joanne Harris
Just as there are posh eateries, places for the wealthy and famous to see and be seen, literary genres become hot, become the place to be. If anyone doubts that Young Adult (YA) is the literary equivalent of Le Bernadin, Les Halles, or Per Se, just look at the parade of big time adult authors who have tried their hand at YA books in the past year, Carl Hiassan, Cristina Garcia, Jack Higgins, Robert Parker, Dave Barry, Mike Lupica, and Sherman Alexie, to name a few. And now, into the eatery, strolls Joanne Harris, the fine adult novelist, author of Chocolat, Blackberry Wine, Five Quarters of the Orange, and others.
For some adult authors the foray in the YA has been a logical extension of their adult work. Jack Higgins' Surefire, for example is an espionage thriller similar in concept to his adult espionage thrillers. Joanne Harris' Runemarks is a true departure, however, as it is a YA fantasy set in the world of Norse Mythology, while her previous work has all been traditional fiction, with perhaps a touch of magical realism. Mythology has been a rich fantasy lode of late, most notably in the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. Runemarks is not at all The Lightning Thief with Norse Gods however. Where Riordan sets his books very much in our world, using the Gods to jazz things up, Harris sets Runemarks firmly inside the realm of Norse Mythology. Surt has had his way with the nine worlds, Thor and a few surviving Aesir are imprisoned in a black fortress beneath Hel, and Odin walks the world as a one eyed sage seeking a more favorable ending to the next looming Armageddon . We're post Ragnarok, I mean to say, which is an interesting place to be.
Harris' command of her material is impressive, as is her ability to write for a younger audience. The story's central character, Maddy, is marked for magical ability by a rune on her skin. These marks are called ruinmarks, and the repressive government takes a dim view of them. Runemarks give power, and Maddy's is a new mark, an oracle's mark, and the traveling, one eyed wanderer recognizes it as such.
Maddy is imaginatively cast as the second coming of the seeress, the oracular poet of the Elder Edda who is credited with pronouncing its vision of the end of the nine worlds, The Volupsa. She is also the child of Thor and Sif. Odin, One Eye, makes for a very compelling and authentic Gandolfesque sage, and Harris' command of the dramatic tone and resonance of the Volupsa gives the book a satisfying quality. Runemarks is not as fast paced, light hearted, nor as immediately accessible as the Percy Jackson books, but, as when Gandalf stared down Denthor, one senses that it has "the greater power."
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