Norse Code

by Greg van Eekhout

Cover image

Publisher: Ballantine
Copyright: 2009
ISBN: 0-553-59213-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 292

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Mist is a Valkyrie, tasked by Odin (by way of her boss Radgrid) to recruit soldiers for Valhalla in the upcoming battle of Ragnarok. Baldr has been killed, slain by his brother Höd through the machinations of Loki, setting into motion the inevitable destruction of the world, and of late that destruction seems to be entering its final phases. The world is locked in an endless winter, society is breaking down, and it feels like the last battle is fast approaching. So Mist's task is urgent.

The standard method of Valkyrie recruitment is to watch the fields of battle and to harvest the deserving slain. But Radgrid doesn't think that's fast enough. The best warriors for Odin are often those who are Odin's descendents, so she's built a genetic analysis firm to track them down. The warriors must die in battle, so she sends out Grimnir, a previously recruited (and veteran) warrior, with Mist to fight whoever they've tracked down and kill them, at which point Mist can bring them to Valhalla. The only problem with this plan is that Mist isn't exactly happy to watch Grimnir kill an accountant who has no idea how to fight.

As a long-time fan of Norse mythology, I'm happy to see the recent flood of fantasy that uses it as a backdrop. I'm particularly happy to see it as a setting for urban fantasy, where there are rather too many vampires and werewolves and not enough variety. Admittedly, calling this urban fantasy is a bit of a stretch, since rather a lot of Norse Code takes place in mythological settings, but there's enough interaction between the world of Norse mythology and everyday life that it still has that feel to me. Mist is, in most respects, a typical urban fantasy heroine: tough, independent, capable of holding her own in a fight, and getting into trouble by going against the order of things until she gets sucked into vast problems that are almost beyond her capability.

What's missing from this book, though, is the close emotional bond between the reader and the protagonist. I think there are two main reasons for this: a bit too much emotional distance, and the first novel problem of a few too many ideas shoved into too small of a book.

Norse Code is, unusually for urban fantasy, not told in the first person, and I think that's partly why Mist remains a bit of a cipher. She has a brief sketch of a past, culminating in her and her sister being murdered. She was chosen as a Valkyrie while she watched her sister walk the long road to Hel, which provides some of the motivation of the book. (Retrieving her sister makes rather more sense emotionally than her other stated motivation for going to Hel.) But there just isn't much behind it, and without her first-person perspective on events, I never developed much of a feel for her. Her sister, who gets just a few viewpoint sections, seems like a much more interesting character, but even there we only get glimmers of what she cares about.

Van Eekhout has this problem throughout the book. The plot is relentless, tense, and enjoyably complex, but there's a lot of distance between the reader and the characters. We only get occasional glimpses of what they care about and what's motivating them, and those glimpses, without the underlying backdrop of history and personality, often feel random. There's a bit of a romance, for example, which seems to come out of nowhere. It sometimes feels like one is reading a history rather than a novel.

The best characterization probably goes to Hermod, a minor Norse god whose story van Eekhout alters and then elaborates. I did get a sense of his love of wandering and his feel for moving through the cracks of the world, and I think I would have enjoyed reading more about him outside of the vast sweep of upcoming Ragnarok. But I didn't get a chance, and the characterization stayed mostly on the surface.

The other serious problem with this book is a standard first-novel problem: there are a lot of ideas, all packed together tightly and sometimes not developed enough. It makes for a fast-paced book, but at the cost of dropping some of those ideas before they're fully explored and leaving the reader wondering what the point was.

For example, the secret genetics company run by Valkyries and devoted to finding descendents of Odin and forcibly recruiting them to the armies of Valhalla is a great hook. That could have easily been expanded into a book itself: inevitable internal politics, the possible drawbacks of Radgrid's unconventional recruitment methods, and emotional bonds and conflicts between the various employees (knowing and unknowing) could all have been fleshed out. Instead, NorseCODE disappears from the book almost completely after the first few chapters. The plot sweeps the characters into other big ideas and that setup left behind. There's one mention, late in the book, that Radgrid's methods may not work as she intended, but then nothing comes of it.

The center of this book is a retelling of the events of Ragnarok and the desperate attempts of the characters to stop them. Van Eekhout fiddles with the story a bit, alters the heroes and villains in some subtle ways, and takes a look at the supposed inevitability of Ragnarok from a much different angle than I've seen before. This part was great; it's definitely the strength of the book. If you don't know Norse mythology, van Eekhout explains it as he goes, but since he's only explaining his version, I think you'd lose much of the enjoyment of seeing how he recasts it. If you do know Norse mythology (particularly the Marvel Comics version, for which this book provides a wonderful contrast), it's great fun: much less of Thor, Odin, Loki, and other the typical center-stage gods and heroes of the story, and much more of the characters around the edges and what their goals and motivations are. It also contains the best Frigga I've ever seen in a retelling of Norse mythology, a good Fenrir, and some rather awesome set pieces. I had a lot of fun with van Eekhout's imagination.

But, as much fun as the events are, there's a note missing. It's too much of an intellectual pleasure, without enough emotional backing. The characters aren't present enough, the reader doesn't have enough opportunity to build a connection and really care about their fates, and the flood of Norse mythology isn't grounded in an emotional sense of what it would be like to be there, with those things happening to you. The reader maintains too much distance, which also robs the set pieces of some of their majesty.

If you like Norse mythology, this is still worth reading, since it explores corners and pokes at ideas that I've not seen done elsewhere. But compared to, say, Elizabeth Bear's treatment of Ragnarok (a high standard, admittedly), there isn't enough emotional punch. If you're new to Norse mythology, I'm not sure I'd recommend this; while van Eekhout will give you a comprehensive introduction to Ragnarok, I think the book would be less enjoyable for not knowing the tradition that he's playing with.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-12-31

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21