It’s the end of the world like you’ve never known it: snarky and sassy with strangely touching moments weaved into a quick-moving story, Greg van Eekhout’s Norse Code (Spectra) manages to turn a fresh edge on old myths. And it’s probably the only re-weaving of Ragnarok where the poor blind guy, the one who started the countdown to Doomsday, is actually a sympathetic and participatory character rather than a footnote in lore.
What an odd piece of work Norse Code is.
In many ways, the book fits neatly into the slot of Paranormal Mystery. There are certain tropes that show up: the sarcastic, disillusioned Slacker Guy protagonist, trying to get an even break of less adventure than fate bestows upon him; or the driven, conflicted Strong Girl protagonist, fighting her way out of an oppressive system with roots tapping deep into ancient mythos. Bring to the party ancient supernatural entities who surprisingly prefer tea and honey in plastic bears over fights for spiritual domination and riddles... of course, a twisted maze of Big Bad Villains What Are Gods and Beings You Don’t Wanna Mess With... mix in plenty of beatings of the main character, extreme high stakes, much eventual and glorious ass-kicking by the main character.
This modern template is oft-repeated with slight modifications—a change of the city of operations, sometimes successfully given life, sometimes less so. The P.I. character may be supernatural, or may just be unfortunately blessed with other world contact. Sometimes the structure given popping zing (like Tim Pratt’s Marla Mason series) or completely turned on its head (like Liz Williams’ Detective Inspector Chen series), and sometimes it’s less heartfelt rehash.
Norse Code should have been another series of ticks in the checklist of paranormal P.I. fiction, and yet it rises above that. It is refreshing, and doesn’t make the myth scholar in me want to puke at adaptation of myth.
What does Norse Code bring to the table? There are four main successes here. The first is that the storyline combines the two types of private investigators, while giving them actual professions that aren’t, I don’t know, just mortal private investigators. Having multiple viewpoints is a godsend in this genre (see Williams’ series for one). Mist is a fledgling assassin who doesn’t like the way things are going for the company she works with (it is, after all, a front for Someone Godly Huge who really wants to bring about apocalypse now). Hermod is the other, your occasional messenger boy who really does lounge on beaches when possible as opposed to being a repressed workaholic. And a god; one of the sons of Odin.
Most authors get about as close as angels. This is downright cheeky.
The second success is the way that the gods, from Hermod to Freya, Baldr to Hod, the whole Asgard gang, are portrayed. There are more touches of Neil Gaiman than most incarnations, a blending of our modern world and the ancient myths, with a knowledgeable and fertile imagining of how things might have developed after the myths ended. This requires more than merely picking off popular elements along; it’s effectively alternate history with a mythical twist, and van Eekhout does an excellent job, playing with Norse mythology in both a faithful and retconned way. The balance is hard to get right, and I think it works in Norse Code.
The third success is the way that Eekhout gives attention to both the significant gods and the little people. The Valkyries, the Heroic Dead, the caught-in-the-middle humans, and the, well, Other Dead who get to go to Hel for not being stupidly brave enough—bringing them in as main characters (another aspect of the Gaiman-like touch). It’s not just Mist, it’s also her sister shot dead in Mist’s recently troubled past, who would usually play the part of Past Inspiring Memory; it’s Hod, the blind god whom everyone normally scapegoats and then ignores; it’s Grimnir, a Heroic Dead who should have been a villain; it’s a dead town of Iowans.
And the fourth success? Eekhout raises the stakes as high as they can go—and the way he brings the house down is excellent in its pathos without getting drowned in wangst and the plot twists to wrench victory from the jaws of defeat. van Eekhout is daring—that’s one of The Dresden Files’ strengths, but Norse Code takes it to another level and then some.
In fact, I want to see van Eekhout do a sequel, because I’m sadistic like that.
So: standing ovation here. If there’s one thing that kind of twitches me, it’s that the love relationships fall too easily into place, which is one of the few elements that is, to me, tiringly stereotypical. But otherwise Norse Code is a great, fun ride out to space-time.
The Kindle Bit
The publisher of Norse Code is Bantam books. How do they hold up?
First, the right things: preserving the decorative chapter titles. Paragraph spacing, margins, and indenting is right, even in places other than the main text. From a readability standpoint, very good. Even the title page is nicely done.
Second, the wrong things: no image cover apart from the horrible Bantam generic. No table of contents (and thus less easy access to Other Books By). Forcing left justification of text.
Fewer sins than most publishers, but it’s not HarperCollins quality, which is admittedly a high bar. But Bantam’s formatting in this case is highly readable, and that’s very good in this field.
(And that’s a rant for another day.)