I must confess, my knowledge of the Norse pantheon of Gods doesn't stretch much beyond the basics. A smattering of knowledge picked up doing a primary 5 (that's 5th grade, for our US readers) project on the vikings, and a few bits 'n' pieces picked up from the telly and some video games (Heimdall on the Amiga, anyone?) is about my limit.
Fortunately this was a more-than-adequate amount to allow an understanding and enjoyment of James Lovegrove's superb The Age of Odin.
The hero of the piece is Gideon "Gid" Coxall. Gid is a former soldier in the British Army, discharged after having a chunk of his brain blown out by an IED in Afghanistan and down on his luck ever since. His wife left him, is currently living with another woman and has taken his 12 year old son, Cody, with her. He only just gets by on his army half-pension and jobseeker's allowance, and is althogether rather miserable.
So, when his former comrade-in-arms and closest thing he has to a best mate, Abortion (yes, Abortion...it is explained), tells him all about something called The Valhalla Mission recruiting ex-army for a few weeks of work at ridiculously good rates, Gid goes looking for Asgard Hall, the Valhalla Mission HQ.
The journey is short, but eventful. Barely surviving a car crash, the harshest snow-storms in history and an attack by a pack of wolves, Gid wakes up surrounded by people claiming to be Norse gods. He is, as one would be, sceptical.
Thor is there, wielding a hammer named Mjolnir; Freya is there with, in Gid's opinion, a bottom made in heaven, even if nothing else about her is divine; Heimdall is in charge of the rainbow bridge, Bifrost, and Frigga is the nursemaid who heals Gid after his ordeals.
The man in charge, well, he says his name is Odin. Odin says Ragnarok - the end of all things, the doom of the gods - is close, the greatest enemy Asgard has ever known is on the offensive. Odin needs Gid's help.
The Age of Odin slots itself nicely in to the Urban Fantasy category and Lovegrove very cleverly blends technological advances in modern weaponry with the Nordic stories of old.
In Gid's world the UK is run by Prime Minister Clasen, the USA by President Lois Keener and the world is in the grip of what many believe to be the beginning of a new ice age. In reality it's the Fimbulwinter; several harsh, consecutive, winters with no intervening summer, that cover the world in snow in the time before Ragnarok.
The existence of the gods is explained by Odin in what has become a staple plot-tool of the urban fantasy genre - we think, therefore they are.
Odin, Thor, Heimdall and the rest exist because mortal faith and mortal stories conjured them into being. The more we believe in them, the stronger and more powerful they become.
Unlike Neil Gaiman's American Gods in which the old deities are being supplanted by, and warring with, the new gods of the 21st centurty - technology, money, sex and drugs - the gods of Valhalla simply adapt to the advancements of world that created them. The Valkyries' horses and spears have been replaced with snow mobiles and AK47s, Odin's eight-legged flying horse, Sleipnir, has been replaced with a chinook helicopter, Norn seers, The Fates, use TV and VHS tapes instead of tapestry and thread, and ancient monsters of legend are reborn in the form of technological weapons of war.
This all had the potential to be a confusing, cliched mess of a tale, but nothing could be further form the truth. Lovegrove has taken these elements and woven his own delightful tapestry of legend, war, love, sex, action and humour.
Oh, yes, humour - The Age of Odin had me chuckling throughout and, on more than one occasion, out-loud laughing. Lovegrove pokes the ribs of anyone and everyone. Mortals, gods, Scottish, English, Irish, American, Army, RAF...well, you get the idea. Nobody is safe from Gid Coxall and comrades' barracks-honed wit. Lovegrove masterfully portrays the back-and-forth slagging, nick-naming and put downs that are exchanged as friendly banter (just occasionally not so friendly) between the comrades without straying in to out-and-out offensive racism.
All but two or three chapters of the book are told in the first person, from Gid's point of view, which means he's in just every scene. Anyone who's ever tried to write anything of any length knows how difficult that can be to pull off convincingly for even a few chapters. Lovegrove manages it for the entire book and manages to inject it with humour action and even a sex scene and makes it seem effortless.
I'm not going to say "I couldn't put it down" because that would make me either very weird, or very clumsy around superglue. I will, however, say that I didn't want to put it down, and on more than one occasion in the last week I snuck an extra minute or two on my break to get to the end of a chapter.
The Age of Odin isn't James Lovegrove's first novel that brings us face to face with ancient gods, but it's the first one I've read and if this one is anything to go by I'll definitely be adding The Age of Zeus and The Age of Ra to my 2011 reading list. If you like your urban fantasy fast-paced, funny and full of action then you simply must read The Age of Odin.
The Age of Odin is released by Solaris Books on 28th December 2010*.
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