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Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2008 02:06 pm

The end of the world is just the beginning

Runemarks by Joanne Harris. Knopf, 2008, 527 pp.
Joanne Harris

When I looked up Internet data on this new book, lo, I found a whole Rune Universe out there, lots of materials, much associated with this author. After a bunch of entries came this volume, followed by reader reviews — a number of five-stars, and one disgruntled one-star, who disapproved but not for the reasons I do. I’d give this a 2 1/2, maybe a 3. A half thumb up, maybe just a thumbnail.

I look on each new fantasy (my special field) with dark suspicion, for almost all are warmed-over Tolkien or second-rate LeGuin. Bandwagon genre books. But Runemarks, right from its arresting dust jacket, started out so promising! After the End of the World, but of course it wasn’t, there’s a medieval-type valley with rigid puritanical sensibilities, maps, an intriguing character list and a runish “alphabet” — plus a 14-year-old protagonist with special powers because of the “ruinmark” birthmark on her hand. And then you realize the world is still peopled with the Norse gods, they didn’t die out after all. Hey! Some originality! Lucky is Loki and just as treacherous, and you spend vast periods of time underground, each level — like the Inferno (a source) ever more gruesome. You soon realize One-Eye is Odin and after a bit that he’s Maddie Smith’s grandfather. (That makes Thor her daddy, and how he impregnated a common valley housewife is anybody’s guess; these gods have their ways.) The valley’s ominous Word is a kind of Bible that condones witch burning. So, there are a lot of intriguing elements. The plot? You gotta stop the bad guys before they destroy the cosmic order and chaos takes over forever. Standard stuff, but with a twist.

It’s got goblins, they all have to have goblins, but there’s lots else and the C.S. Lewis fault of including everything plus centaurs is avoided. Yet its 527 pages should have been condensed to about 300. You need a scorecard, it gets tedious. But the main fault is, you don’t care. At all.

You don’t care about any of the quarrelsome gods and their survival, not even the Miltonesque Loki. You don’t care whether even such a world survives. And none of the characters grow in depth of understanding, compassion, or love, for each other or for you and your own deeper understanding of life and love, which is what the best fantasy does (as does the best poetry).

What’s to understand? You don’t learn much, and you don’t grow. You even yawn. You don’t have a Ged or Tenar or Ogion you really suffer with — or an Estraven you love, so that every time you reread Left Hand of Darkness you pray he’ll make it, though you know he won’t. You don’t have a Frodo departing from the Grey Havens, where you get a catch in your throat, or a Bilbo reciting, “In every wood, in every spring, there is a different green.” And an Aragorn you can worship as truly heroic. Plus there’s the incomparable down-to-earth Samwise, the true hero of the Rings.

I wish I could feel anything for Maddie Smith but I don’t have the book in front of me and I’m not sure how she turned out, except she made it, and her grandpa didn’t. Too bad. This is one of these books that’s so good it ought to be a whole lot better. All you fantasy lovers out there, and I know who you are, see if you agree.

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