Loki and other tricksters

Let me get one thing straight before I start. Until people started saying on Twitter (and Amazon, and Goodreads, and, and, and…) that Joanne Harris must have capitalised on the popularity of the Marvel films (the implication being that a) she wouldn’t have written The Gospel of Loki at all otherwise and b) it’s only enjoyed the success it has because of Thor), I HAD NEVER HEARD OF TOM HIDDLESTON. I know. Shock, right? Well, no, actually. Not if you know me, anyway.

I’ve been meaning to write a review of this book ever since I read it (first back in February, when it was published, and again in April, which is the least amount of time between two readings of the same book in the history of Me Reading), and this latest (identical) accusation that Joanne is riding on the back of someone else’s success has really fucking got my hackles up, so now it’s time. It’s got to the point where it’s one niggle (several niggles, actually – or should that be Hiddles?) too many. So when I mention Loki, as I reach the review part of this piece (and I will, of course, this book being his story, told in his voice), all I ask is that, if you are familiar with the Marvel version of Loki, you don’t let this leach into your interpretation of what I’m about to write. Because that’ll be annoying, as it will water down or add different meaning to what I’m trying to say (and those who know me well know that I fucking hate that).

Many of you will know that I have been reading Joanne Harris’s books for a long time. Fifteen years, in fact, ever since I first read (and fell hopelessly in love with) Chocolat. Time and again, she has produced writing which simultaneously surprises me and yet doesn’t – it doesn’t, because I know she’s a fucking good writer and I’d be shocked if she wrote anything that wasn’t fabulous in one way or another (and she’s fabulous in many ways, not least as a person, irrespective of her writing); and yet it does, because the high quality of her work never fails to astound me (again, often in more ways than one). When A Cat, A Hat and A Piece of String was published and I read the first story in it (River Song), I closed the book with tears in my eyes, not so much because of the story (which was, of course, beautiful and, like everything else she writes, very human), but because of the sheer flawlessness of the writing itself. I have read enough in my life to easily distinguish good writing from bad (I might say it’s especially easy to recognise the bad), and much of what I’ve read has been absolutely outstanding. River Song is one such example, but it is genuinely the only story that has made me cry simply because of the beauty of the writing itself.

I’ve been writing practically since I was still in nappies, and I was able to read before I started primary school. (My mum remembers me having moved on to proper books by the time I was four, so when teachers, bless ‘em, thought they were teaching the whole class to read, I was staring at the ceiling, which earned me sharp criticism for daydreaming and not “learning” something I already knew how to do). It would be a fair assessment to say that I was born with my nose in a book, and nothing much has changed. I still take a book everywhere I go, no matter how short the journey. So I know how hard it is to get the right turn of phrase, to write what you actually want to say, to add detail by leaving words out, and Joanne Harris does this beautifully. If I can produce anything even half as good as she does time after time, I’ll die a happy writer.

It seems quite a few reviewers have come to Joanne Harris’s writing fresh from Loki, and I believe this gives them a skewed perception of what her novels must be like. (I have to say, if someone asked me to sum up her books, I think my reply would go something like: “Ummm… Read them yourself. Then you’ll know you’re asking the impossible.”) I came to Loki not really knowing what to expect. But what I did expect, and indeed what I knew, was that it would be amazing. And it is.

You may or may not have noticed at the beginning of the year that there were many posters advertising The Gospel of Loki. There were two at Angel Tube station alone (where I go frequently, as that’s where one of our training venues is), both of them on the same platform. It was nice for me to be able to see a poster which was sporting the name of a writer I knew well, and who I knew genuinely deserved such publicity. And I’d been dying to read it, but had to wait until it came out, and I was finally able to get my hands on a copy at Joanne’s talk at Chichester Waterstone’s.

In the event, I read it in two sittings (both times), fell in love with Loki (the version I saw in my head, not The Other One), and with the writing, which is infused with humour, complete with fart jokes and ‘who, me?’ isms. I could hear Loki’s voice very clearly in my head, while at the same time, I could also recognise Joanne herself, though not in the way you can see some writers in their work. I recognised her, not in the text itself – she’s never actually there, looming over the characters, godlike (that’s annoying, and indicative of someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing) – but in some of the choices of words, and in the humour, the sarcasm and the humanity.

The Trickster is a feature in all of our lives, and you don’t have to search very hard to find him. George P. Hansen’s book The Trickster and the Paranormal draws the conclusion that whatever your take on the Trickster, and on paranormal events, if you get tangled up in trying to prove its existence (or especially if you try to disprove it), it’ll fuck you up, thereby flagging its existence loud and clear and leaving you in no doubt that something strange is going on. The only question is: what? So to have this account written from the point of view of the Trickster himself is something of a relief.

I have to confess to not having known a great deal about Norse mythology before, so I came to this book with something of a fresh head (well, as fresh as it gets, anyway). And it contains everything I wanted it to contain: it’s funny; it’s human; and it’s very, very dark. The fact that the darkness is interwoven with humour makes it more palatable, but at the same time, it darkens it further still, as you wonder if you should actually be laughing at something that’s quite this nasty. (Let’s face it, we’re all human – we all judge people, and if that makes us face up to the fact that we’re not the ideal, perfect person we thought we were, all the better. We could all use a little humility.)

Loki starts his narrative by introducing the other players in the story, gods and goddesses made human by their flaws. This puts a mirror to the violence and injustice which is carried out in the name of religion – God is perfect, he can do no wrong, Obey Him Or Else – and highlights the absurdity of blind belief in an entity (or entities) that no one has ever seen. (And don’t try to tell me you’ve felt the touch of God or if I don’t believe then I won’t go to Heaven. We may still be friends, you and I, but you won’t see much of me, after that. Believe me, it’s happened before.) Loki then goes on to tell the story of how he came to be summoned by Odin, and taken to Asgard, where he was regarded with suspicion by everyone except Idun the healer, who can see the good in him (perhaps even more than he can see in himself), and Sigyn, Freya’s handmaiden, who fancies him.

There is little point in me describing the events after that. If you know the story of Ragnarók, you know what happens anyway, and if you don’t, it’ll spoil the fun. And this book is a ride, from beginning to end, with Joanne’s skill as a writer drawing you in right from the first page (heads up: this is before the first page of the story).

In fact, it’s such a ride that I finally sought out her other fantasy books, Runemarks and Runelight, set 500 and 503 years after the end of the worlds, respectively. They were marketed as YA books, but that’s unnecessarily restrictive, in my view. They’re long, “adult-length” books (c. 500 and 600 pp), and although they feature a young protagonist (Maddy Smith), who is 14 in Runemarks, there is no good reason that grown-up readers can’t enjoy it just as much as teenagers. Again, they’re funny, again, they’re dark, interwoven with rune magic which holds all of it together like a thread running through the silk handkerchiefs of the nine worlds.

Magic is something which features heavily in Joanne Harris’s books, but it’s not magic as most people think of it. It’s the magic of the everyday, the magic we can all access, if only we try (and some of us don’t even have to try that hard). It’s the magic of being human, and divine, and fallible; it’s the magic of love and connections; and it’s the magic of secrets and deceit. Because magic, like words, should be handled with care and treated with respect.

I won’t quote from the book, here. There are a lot of reviews online, and in any one of them, you’ll find a paragraph or two. So, to finish, I’ll just say this. If you haven’t yet read The Gospel of Loki, do. And if you have, read it again. Because, just as with all of Joanne’s books, there’s something new to find with every new reading. So go read.

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