In 2008’s middle-grade chapter book Odd and the Frost Giants, Neil Gaiman took Norse mythology, commonly depicted as dour or Shakespearean, and gave it a unique spin, including talking animals and a protagonist with a serious amount of pluck. What results is a successful re-weaving of classic Norse myth into a tale that feels contemporary, without sacrificing any of the complexity behind the myth itself.
Initially, Gaiman adopts a relatively straightforward fairy tale structure for Odd and the Frost Giants, but the premise is deliciously Gaiman, complete with gods in disguise. When young Odd (meaning “tip of the blade”) leaves home to escape the oppression of his stepfather, he encounters a bear trapped in a pine tree. After freeing the bear, a fox and an eagle join Odd, and that’s when the fun starts.
At the start of the third chapter, “The Night Conversation,” Odd has halted his journey for the evening and in his weariness imagines a conversation between the three animals that have randomly decided to journey with him. Soon, he suspects the conversation is actually taking place, and decides to confront the really-not-supposed-to-be-talking animals:
“You were talking,” said Odd.
The animals looked at Odd and at one another. If they did not actually say “Who? Us?” it was there in their expressions, in the way they held themselves.
“Somebody was talking,” said Odd, and it wasn’t me. There isn’t anyone else in here. That means it was you lot. And there’s no point in arguing.”
“We weren’t arguing,” said the bear. “Because we can’t talk.” Then it said, “Oops.”
The fox and the eagle glared at the bear, who put a paw over its eyes and looked ashamed of itself.
Odd sighed. “Which one of you wants to explain what’s going on?” he said.
“Nothing’s going on,” said the fox brightly. “Just a few talking animals. Nothing to worry about. Happens every day. We’ll be out of your hair first thing in the morning!”
This is where I started to love this book. Turning on a single line of dialogue, Gaiman breaks the story out of Odd’s sometimes dour, matter-of-fact voice and into a larger, more jaunty tone. The effortless blending of tones and genres is part of what makes Gaiman’s writing unique in general, but it’s really creative here. The change in tone is also not totally apparent right away, but that’s also why it’s so effective.
In terms of the plot, this scene reveals what the story is really all about: the bear, the eagle, and the fox are actually Thor, Odin, and Loki! They’ve been transformed into animals by a Frost Giant and cast out of Asgard. And now, it’s up to Odd to help them get back to their realm.
Peppered throughout the chapters are illustrations from the incomparable Brett Helquist. I think it’s fair to say Helquist is most famous for his work on Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, and with good reason. Helquist is great at capturing the personality in the faces of the characters he depicts without selling that personality too hard, or too cartoonishly. A single look at the face of a character Helquist is depicting lets you know exactly what specific moment you’re seeing them in.
Odd’s journey isn’t an unpredictable one, but that’s not the point with a story like this. Gaiman is telling a tale of a young hero who is helpful even when no one will help him, and it is this quality that allows Odd to move mighty, world-turning forces. Even gods need the charity of a helping hand.
For someone known for the darker side of kid’s lit, like Coraline or The Graveyard Book, Gaiman’s tone in Odd and the Frost Giants is refreshingly bright and a great one to read to a child out loud.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com. He once imagined his cat actually possessed the katra of Bugs Bunny.