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Runemarks by Joanne Harris

01/02/2012. Contributed by Jennifer Howell

Buy Runemarks in the USA - or Buy Runemarks in the UK

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pub: Doubleday/Random House Children's Books. 504 page hardback. Price: GBP14.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-385-61130-5.

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You have to admit that 'Runemarks' does have an absolutely killer first line: ‘Seven o’clock on a Monday morning, five hundred years after the End of the World, and goblins had been at the cellar again.’ A first line so good, it was all they were using as a tagline on the promo posters. The trouble with Joanne Harris’ first venture in YA writing, after several insanely successful adult novels, isn’t that it’s bad so much but that it has an awful lot to live up to.

It's also a slightly awkward sell. Her breakout novel was the deservedly international best-seller 'Chocolat' and her subsequent books since have been similarly first-person, French-inspired narratives with a couple of exceptions. They're mainstream, more literary and only some of them have fantasy elements, which are necessarily much subtler, with an already established audience. This was never exactly the same audience that 'Runemarks' was going to appeal to by any means.

The possible target audience is probably aged a little younger than fourteen year-old Maddie Smith, the much maligned protagonist, born with a rune (or 'ruin') mark on her hand. With that, of course, comes a talent for frowned-upon magic that sees her held in deep suspicion by most inhabitants of her tiny town, including her family. The only exception being the wandering trader One-Eye, who occasionally teaches her on his annual visit to town. This year, One-Eye wants Maddie to help him open up the gateway to the world below and naturally enough, all hell breaks loose.

What 'Runemarks' does have going for it these days is that the End of the World referred to earlier is actually Ragnarok and the Norse gods are certainly a little more familiar now than they used to be. It's also an obvious passion-project for Joanne Harris, going by the rather lovely section of her website devoted to explaining how it evolved from her first ever attempt completed manuscript (, which goes some way to account for the fact that it feels so, well, familiar. It doesn't read quite like Joanne Harris, but it does feel awfully like a certain type of fantasy book of the post-‘Lord Of The Rings’ era. It's pleasant and cosy, but somewhat over-narrated. For lots of folk, that's part of the appeal of epic-fantasy-lite: much telling and not so much showing.

What it does have is enthusiasm for the mythology in bucket-loads and an entire pantheon of Norse gods, re-imagined in various ways. Loki always, always steals the show no matter how the mythology is done and this Loki is no exception and it is fairly entertaining, especially the goblins! The only trouble is, it goes on for a good 500 pages and the plot itself just isn't quite up to sustaining that much. It's an ambitious length for a book that pitches slightly young (JK Rowling and Stephanie Meyer are the exceptions rather than the rule for doorstop-size YA volumes) and even the characters start to outstay their welcome. It seems a shame, but it ended up wearing out my fondness for the story by the end as it dragged on and I wound up losing patience.

It is a shame, because ending something feeling vaguely irritated tends to skew your memory of how snappy the preceding part of the book was. It's not exactly the kind of fantasy story telling I prefer and, being a big fan of 'Chocolat', it's not the kind of Joanne Harris book that I love unfortunately. It's not even my kind of Norse mythology re-telling to be honest, as I made the mistake of reading Neil Gaiman's sublime 'American Gods' just before this, which makes anything similar slightly pale in comparison. Having said all that, there is a lot of to like about 'Runemarks'. It's colourful and entertaining with a good eye for the chaos caused by a bunch of meddling deities and an appealing and determined main character in Maddie and you could do a lot worse as an introduction to Norse mythology. Perhaps it never quite lives up to the promise of that first line, but it certainly gets a gold star for effort.

Jennifer Howell

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