Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Gospel of Loki - Joanne M. Harris

The Gospel of Loki is an interesting twist on the traditional Norse saga’s. Where those have a broader, more heroic context, this narrative is intensely personal. The viewpoint is hardly heroic either – being a first person account, from none other than the titular Loki: Norse god, trickster, general troublemaker. Unsurprisingly, it puts a bit of a different spin on the traditional saga myth. If you’ve absorbed any of those, this will certainly tweak your preconceptions. If you’re coming to Norse mythology fresh, then it’s still a perfectly enjoyable story.

The narrative takes the reader along with Loki, through the creation of the worlds, all the way through to Ragnarok, the end of everything. Its strength is in the narrative voice. Loki narrates the events of the Norse myths entirely in the tone of someone reciting history, or a family anecdote – which is extremely thematically appropriate.  The voice that is used to speak to the reader is informal, wry, and very emotive; it contains the character that the author has drawn for Loki very well.

That character is, really, the core of the book. Given that Loki opens with a piece on the unreliability of all narrators, his own story is thrown into doubt, part of the tradition of conflicting accounts. On the other hand, his actions are consistent with his internal character. He’s an individual torn between two worlds, between the elemental chaos and disorder from which he was formed, and the fascinatingly ordered world of what we see as reality. That dichotomy gets him into quite a lot of trouble;  acting with his nature causes all sorts of problems. But there are some wonderfully complex layers present here. Loki works to be accepted amongst the inhabitants of Asgard, strives to fit in, despite his origins, distinct from their own; that he is rebuffed and, by his own account, abused, helps keep the reader sympathetic as he begins to turn against erstwhile allies.

Much like the allure of Shakespeare’s Othello, the reader is pulled into Loki’s descent into villainy. The self-justifications, the unfortunate actions, the moments of misunderstanding which cause events to fall one way or another. Loki doesn’t come off as human, particularly, but he does come off as understandable and even, at least some of the time, likable.  The reader is left wondering if their narrator is justified after all. What the author has done here is take a previously unrepentant individual, and given them more depth, more drives, made them visible and sympathetic to the reader. And it works very well.

The other characters aren’t given much of the same depth in Loki’s narration. The female goddesses of Asgard, in particular, come off as ciphers. On the other hand, this may well be intentional – they’re not  very well represented in the source material either, and Loki isn’t really the most empathetic of characters anyway. Most of the cast seem to serve as foils for, or levers on, our narrator. Then again, this is Loki’s story, and the reader is already adrift in Loki’s internal monologue, so this may be acceptable as a narrative device. Still, it would have been nice to have a little more flesh on the bones of Odin, Heimdall and the rest.

The story cleaves close to the original text of the Saga’s, and remains engaging and entertaining throughout. I won’t spoil it here, but will say that there’s quite a lot of action and adventure along the way. There’s also a fair amount of scheming – almost all of it on Loki’s part, but it heightens the dramatic tension nicely. The story trots along at a good pace, and given that the prose itself is so engaging, it’s quite difficult to put down.

Overall, a really nice character piece, on one of the more sympathetic and engaging “villains” of the last few millennia. Very easy to read, with a plot that both informs and entertains the reader. Worth looking into.

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