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The Magnus Chase series by Rick Riordan is currently one of my favourite suggestions to offer whenever asked for YA recommendations. A great deal of this is to do with the fact that the characters within the novels are largely ethnically, racially, culturally, and religiously diverse, complex, disabled in certain cases [1], not isolated from prejudice and working within and around these dynamics, and demonstrate a working knowledge of class systems. To be clear, though, it’s not a perfect series by any means. Riordan still has a lot of work to do in terms of his approach to some of these ideas; but in many ways this series stands entire mountain ranges above a lot of other authors whose work in the YA genre shows a distinct refusal to engage or do better even post-critique. He appears to genuinely be doing the work of listening to concerns, of trying to promote diverse authors who are better placed to tell certain stories, and seems to be making new mistakes as he tackles the task of trying to listen—rather than perpetrating the same ones over and over (unlike J. K. Rowling). While these aren’t perfect narratives by any means, and I could never recommend them without certain caveats in place (depending on the person I suggest them to), I know that I would recommend them—they’re flawed but pretty exceptional.

To summarise briefly, Magnus Chase and the Hammer of Thor (2016) is the second instalment in Riordan's Norse mythology YA series. These books follow the adventures of their titular hero, Magnus Chase, whose death at the age of sixteen is seen as heroic enough to grant him entry to Valhalla. Valhalla itself is depicted as a large hotel on the outskirts of the city of Asgard, where the inhabitants, as einherji (i.e., warriors), have their every need for food and shelter freely met as they train endlessly for the Ragnarok, i.e. the end of days. Magnus is made aware that events are coming to pass, largely guided by Loki’s machinations, which will begin Ragnarok, and so he and his stalwart companions, Samirah al-Abbas (the Valkyrie who brought him to Valhalla), Hearthstone (an elf), Blitzen (a dwarf), and, in this latest instalment, Alex Fierro (another einherji) work to prevent the end of the nine worlds.

These recruits, or einherji, are young teens who have died in an act of bravery and taken to Valhalla, where they live in seeming opulence while fighting every day to the death as part of their training. They never age physically, though their inner selves (or souls) live for centuries, and these fights involve weapons, magical beasts, and gruesome physical violence in order to harden them to the likelihood of death. In contrast to this constant threat of violence to their lives and bodies, they are given lavish quarters, rich food, and the acceptance and companionship of their squad. None of them have chosen this; they were chosen for it, and the only other option provided is a final death.  Aside from the fairly fundamental problems I have with this (more on which later), I couldn’t help but notice that all the einherji or Valkyrie characters to whom we are introduced are coded as American—diverse classes, races, genders, sexes of Americans, but Americans all the same. And this raises the really basic question of who this series feels is worthy of Valhalla and a stake in deciding when the world comes to an end. If no other country has people worthy of Valhalla, then this plays extremely strongly into narratives of North American exceptionalism and US-centricism. The only character that lies outside of this positioning is the side-character of Halfborn Gunderson, who died and came to Valhalla from the Viking invasion of East Anglia, England. Not a single character from a country in the Global South is mentioned, and even Halfborn Gunderson, when mentioned, has been in Valhalla for over 1,200 years. In effect, the representation of Halfborn Gunderson shares similarities with the character of Zia Rashid in Riordan’s Kane Chronicles series, and both are produced within structures of neocolonialism. [2]

That said, despite and within these North American confines, diversity is one of the series's strengths. Samirah al-Abbas is currently my personal favourite of Riordan’s characters. A Muslim Valkyrie, Samirah has a family history drawing on actual historical evidence that links Viking and Islamic cultures through trade and interaction. Much as Magnus is the child of a relationship between the Norse demigod, Frey, and his mother, Samirah is the child of a relationship between Loki and her mother, and each was raised by a single woman. While Magnus struggles to understand the manner in which Samirah reconciles her work as a Valkyrie for Odin with her faith (since her work indicates proof of the existence of Norse gods), Samirah herself sees no conflict between the worlds she inhabits. Allah grants her the gift of free will and works through her to help her deal with various powerful Norse entities, none of whom she feels obliged to worship or view as a contradiction to her faith. She observes namaz when she can, wears the Swan cloak assigned to her, which allows her to conceal herself during her work as a Valkyrie, as a hijab with pride, and is extremely happy about her forthcoming arranged marriage with Amir Fadlan (whose name feels like a deliberate nod and link to the legacy of famed traveller Ibn Fadlan). This conscious and easy mixing of cultural and religious mythologies is powerful to read, particularly in a globalised and multicultural world in which Islamophobia is on the rise and in which we’re increasingly seeing a push to renounce visible Muslim identities and heritages in favour of a notion of assimilation (that is itself deeply flawed within America, given its history of slavery and settler colonialism).

I’m particularly taken with the manner in which Riordan is intermingling his different series (which so far include books focused on Greek mythology (the Percy Jackson series), Roman mythology (The Trials of Apollo), Egyptian mythology (The Kane Chronicles), and Norse mythology) and placing them within the same world. For example, at one point in a conversation with his cousin Annabeth Chase (who is the daughter of Athena), Magnus Chase wonders to himself how Ran, the Norse god of the sea, and Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea—whom Annabeth mentions is the father of her boyfriend, Percy Jackson—coexist within similar spaces of power; and this is left unresolved for the moment. The easy thing to do in Riordan’s case would be to construct individual series and never have them mix or mingle, but this also presents a primacy of cultural mythology that extends over the whole world as a consequence. The fact that Riordan’s fictional mythological worlds clash, and that their characters seem as puzzled as we are about how power would function in these situations, is great for me because it leaves the cultural complexities of these situations in play and doesn’t erase them for an easy narrative.

Additionally, Samirah’s happiness regarding her forthcoming arranged marriage with Amir Fadlan was a breath of fresh air, given how often arranged marriages, particularly when involving people of colour, are met with sweeping castigation rather than an attempt to understand the differing cultural ethos and power dynamics functioning within each situation. This isn’t a blanket defence of arranged marriage—the system, like all systems, is not without its flaws—but it is a defence against the assertion that I find so often levelled against it: that all arranged marriages are categorically wrong, sexist, and forced upon the people in question (often women). More often than not, the castigation of the entirety of this system stems from xenophobia and racism rather than a genuine concern with the agency of the person involved, and I enjoyed the fact that Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer (2015) not only presented this same perception blanketed in concern (as it so often is) but immediately confronted it as what it truly was—xenophobia.

“I’m just saying, if this is one of those forced arranged marriages, that’s messed up. You’re a Valkyrie. You should be able to—”

“Magnus, shut it, please.”

How is this xenophobia? Upon learning of her engagement, Magnus doesn’t converse with Samirah to gauge whether or not she has any concerns about the arrangement or whether she is being forced at all. Instead he immediately jumps to the notion that she’s being forced and needs him (as white saviour) to remind her that she (as an Arab-American woman) has the tools for emancipation in her power as a Valkyrie. He not only immediately assumes the condescension of presuming her to be a victim, but he forces this opinion on her and makes her deal with his judgement of not only her abilities, but also her culture and her family’s interest in her well-being. Samirah immediately disabuses him of this notion, stating openly that she loves Amir, but also that “sometimes when a family tries to find a good match they actually care what the girl thinks.” Samirah’s sarcasm here is not aimed simply at Magnus but at the assumptions of sexism and xenophobia that so often look at these cultural traditions as simply markers of sexism, without pausing to consider that circumstances may be different depending upon the context and the family involved. In fact, in Magnus Chase and the Hammer of Thor, we specifically see Samirah nearly forced into a different arranged marriage by her father, Loki, and her instinctive refusal of it as well as her horror at the idea. The point the book makes is specifically that not all arranged marriages are the same, and that there are spaces for both—refusal and resistance as well as joy and celebration—depending upon the context involved. [3]

Alongside Magnus and Samirah are Blitzen, a Svartalf dwarf who is visually coded as black, looking not unlike “a very short, well-groomed African-American cowboy hitman,” and Hearthstone, a tall, blonde elf who is deaf. In a world in which black masculinity is so violently threatened, it’s complicated to read a character like Blitz who is so often depicted within and outside of these constructs. As a dwarf, Blitz often has to be heavily disguised in the daylight as the sun’s rays turn him to stone, and this requires him to wear many layers of clothing, obscuring his face and extremities. Intentional or not, the choice to code Blitz as black with this particular drawback does feel political at this moment—particularly since safety for him is found in keeping to the shadows, being hidden within clothing, or only venturing out at night. The choice could be read as emphasising the constant threat to Blitz’s selfhood and body—upon exposure during everyday hours he is reduced to an object, and this is terrifying for him. It’s telling that Alfheim, the realm of the elves that is strongly coded with markers of white supremacy (as well as ableism, slavery, and body shaming), is revealed to be toxic to Blitz—because, due to the city's existence within the realm of air (one of the series' nine worlds), it is always bright and sunny there.

This loss of self reads like a statement of precarity and black masculinity when in the open, and yet I hesitate to say it is as successful as Riordan's treatment of Samirah. The choice in these novels to transfer the agency for this violence against Blitz’s body to nature, presenting it as passive rather than something that we’re increasingly seeing within the real world as a societal issue enacted by individuals and the state, shifts the onus of responsibility for it—particularly given that Blitz is the only character coded as black in the novels, as well as the only member of his race whom we see outside of Nidavellir, the realm of the dwarves, which is described as dark and subterranean. It’s easy to suggest that this is due to the story’s fantastical premise, but that suggests that this isn’t something that could be dealt with within this tale—and based on Riordan’s past record, I know this to be untrue.

Perhaps because Riordan has shown a willingness in The Kane Chronicles series to engage with this reality of anti-blackness and the violence aimed specifically at black masculinity, [4] I expected this to be a factor in Blitz’s representation, and I have complicated feelings about its lack. I’m partially glad about it, because representation of these concerns through a fictional race has its own pitfalls with regard to distancing; but I'm also aware of the fact that representation is essential to draw attention to the presence and impact of this sort of prejudice, and the need for pushback. In fairness, Blitz does engage with perceptions of masculinity, particularly black masculinity, and respectability politics, through his love of being well groomed and his taking pride in his dapper appearance. Blitz is also particularly skilled at combining his love of fashion and design with his skills as a dwarf in creating metal artefacts, and this results in an ability to create light body armour as wearable suits. This combines the notion of his body as a constantly threatened site while taking this necessity for survival and creating it as a skill he can celebrate. There’s something poignant there.

Hearthstone, Blitz’s companion, is a completely deaf elf who lip-reads and communicates via ASL (Alf Sign Language, which the books assure us reads very similarly or the same as American Sign Language), facial expression and/or body language, indexing, and vocally. From my (abled) understanding of the books, Hearth was born deaf, and at no point is this deafness created as magical, overcome magically, or provided with some form of magical work around. [5] The books do much to ensure that this is presented as everyday for Hearth and his chosen companions—as having its pitfalls and drawbacks, as well as occasionally being something that works to Hearth’s advantage in the situation involved. The books feature infrequent situations in which Hearth finds communication with Magnus and the others frustrating or confusing (especially when characters look away or mumble during his lip-reading), while also displaying different levels of comfort amongst characters with using sign language (Magnus and Blitz are fluent while Samirah relies largely on Hearth’s ability to lip-read). Events which see Hearth’s hands or arms being tied up or held down is frequently called out in the books as being horrible, even when this hand-holding is performed by members of their group, and Magnus often notes Hearth’s confusion when events take place that involve their hearing an odd noise in the distance or such. Likewise, Hearth’s deafness has resulted in his ostracisation amongst elves, who value perfection, but also saves him from attacks by Loki, whose influence in the books so far has largely been asserted verbally. As a result of his being safe from Loki’s attacks, he is consequently able to save the other members of his party during one particular fight. Additionally, I appreciated the fact that representation through sign language wasn’t limited to Hearth alone—although we’re only introduced to him briefly, the Norse god Vidar (or “the Silent One” which suggests muteness) also communicates using ASL, making clear that Hearth is not the only being with disabilities (though he remains the novels' primary focus so far).

Given the manner in which Hearth and Blitz have been presented so far, I strongly suspect they are a romantic couple, largely signified by their absolute devotion to each other over above all else. While I can’t be sure of it, I’d say there’s a strong case to be made. And, happily enough, this wouldn’t be the first time Riordan has written gay characters or a gay couple: in his previous series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, he introduced the character of Nico di Angelo, and in the Heroes of Olympus series included the character of Will Brooker; the two of them are now a romantic couple. The play on masculinities, sexualities, ethnicities, disabilities, and precarity in Magnus Chase is not without its drawbacks, particularly since, despite the very brief inclusion of Vidar, Riordan seems to be creating them as singular representations rather than the multiplicity granted to white or abled characters. Even so, the choice to celebrate them and create them as complex characters with their own traumas and disappointments means that I’m willing to cut Riordan a great deal of slack even when I have to pause to side-eye his choices. For example, I am quite displeased with the choice to overlap American with Alf sign language without a second thought to consider differences in cultural connotations, linguistics, or usage that might be present between cultures, or the way in which this reinforces common and incorrect perceptions of all sign languages being the same. Likewise, the manner in which the depiction asserts American English as a multi-global language (since Alfheim is supposed to be a different world altogether) reinforces the series’ neocolonial undertones. [6]

I was also thrilled—and then a little conflicted—by the inclusion of the genderfluid character of Alex Fierro in Magnus Chase and the Hammer of Thor. Like Samirah, Alex shares the experience of being a child of Loki, as well as a past as a homeless child with Magnus (more on this later). However, while reading the book, I found myself uneasy with the use of the term “argr” (which online translations suggest is the Norse word for “unmasculine”) to describe Alex in regard to her genderfluid identity. Since I’m a cis woman and still in the process of educating myself to better recognise and deal with my biases, I asked a friend (who requested that I withhold their name) if they would be willing to provide me with their opinion on Alex’s representation in the novel. I’m very grateful for their response:

I really like Alex Fierro. I think she’s an interesting character with admirable qualities. She’s portrayed well through Magnus’s point of view, and she clearly values her gender fluidity, which is honestly just a really empowering thing to see. A lot of my reaction to this book was, “Wow, that could have gone badly. I’ve seen that done badly, and I did not expect a cis author to do this in a way that didn’t viscerally horrify me.” And while I don’t want to give out cookies for meeting basic standards of decency, I do feel that this book did more than the minimum. Riordan stays mostly in his lane as a cis person; he uses the reactions of other characters to Alex to demonstrate appropriate ways of interacting with trans people, and he makes it clear that actual trans people aren't there to educate—that that’s actually his job, as a cis writer. There are definitely missteps, but nothing that interfered with my ability to enjoy the book.

The way Riordan writes Alex doesn’t cater to cis curiosity: the reader never learns if Alex had a different birth name or what gender she was assigned at birth. The physical descriptions we get of her never mention any secondary sex characteristics, which are often used to signal a character’s transness. Her introduction is built up over a couple chapters with her being referred to as Samirah’s brother, since when Alex died he was male. This is used as a sort of contrast to her being female when she meets Magnus. I’m not a huge fan of dramatic trans reveals, but this worked in a way that wasn’t demeaning or sensationalized, despite the use of the magic setting and the fact that she just shape-shifted.

There’s a point where floor 19 [the part of Valhalla where the main characters live] is talking about their own knowledge of gender fluidity, and this includes culturally exclusive identities such as Two-Spirit—this is another place where I think Riordan walks really close to doing something dangerous (equating identities that can’t be equated) but doesn’t actually do it. It’s an uncomfortable line, and it’s really possible that other readers might think he’s crossed it or needs to do more work to clarify that these identities aren’t equal; and I’m white and really can’t speak to that. I do think that using examples from various historical and cultural settings is really useful for contextualizing and comprehending gender, since genderqueerness and gender fluidity are often (in the Global North, at least) considered to be modern western “indulgences.”

This book tries really hard to model behaviour and to show cis readers how to interact with trans people in respectful ways, which made that one time that [Magnus's hallmate] Halfborn called Alex “argr” in a supposedly friendly, joking way really weird and uncomfortable to me. The use of this word in this story makes me slightly uncomfortable just because it’s used in place of slurs, and it’s historically a pretty harmful word within Viking history. Its use in the story is essentially as a slur—other characters use it in ways that undermine Alex’s ability to self-identify, and Alex reacts to it mostly with anger, so it was pretty weird to me that in this instance it was treated as friendly teasing. Don’t call your friends slurs unless you share that marginalization. Or unless you know them particularly well and you have the sort of relationship where that might be seen as appropriate with them.

On the topic of behaviour that probably shouldn’t be encouraged, there was a section where Magnus asked Samirah if Alex being trans bothered her—specifically because Samirah is Muslim, which seemed to me like a pretty darn insensitive question. (Samirah isn’t upset by Alex’s identity at all.) Just observe your friends interacting. For those of us who have the internet, do your research.

Far more problematic, for me at least, is the manner in which the Magnus Chase series chooses to deal with homelessness. The titular character of the series, Magnus Chase, was himself homeless for at least two years, from the age of fourteen until his death at the age of sixteen. During this period, Blitz and Hearth were sent by Mimir, the guardian of the Well of Knowledge, to care and watch out for him in the guise of being homeless themselves. Later on in the series, there’s Alex Fierro who was also homeless in Boston before her death and consequent shift to Valhalla. Notably, we are only very briefly introduced to Magnus’s life as a homeless teen, and only told of Alex’s in retrospect, and yet this experience is meant to colour the entirety of the novels as they inflect Magnus’s worldview as a first-person narrator. Yet aside from guilt at being well-fed in Valhalla when he sees another homeless person, the novels do little to deal with the aftereffects of Magnus's homelessness in any detail. For example, they skate over Magnus now inexplicably having the money to go to coffee shops when he visits Boston without any reference to where this money came from, what he had to do to earn it, if strings were attached, and—potentially, if it was easily available—the possibilities that could open to him if he truly wished to help. Given that Alex did not have the safety of Hearth and Blitz watching out for her during her period of homelessness, and the higher risk of violence to LGTBQ youth on the streets, her experiences would likely be quite different. Yet little of this is explored at all. In some sense, this feels like Riordan wants to deal with a complicated and weighty topic, but isn’t sure quite how to approach it or how to add in something beyond “here is some basic awareness of class issues.” I appreciate the concept but find the execution lacking in a series that does so much to actually show variety and depth in many of its other chosen issues.

While I genuinely enjoyed reading the book, I have mixed feelings about the underlying ethos of Magnus Chase and the Hammer of Thor and, indeed, a lot of Riordan’s writing as a whole, including the Young Adult Chosen One genre it falls within. The worlds Riordan chooses to build have always featured young adults (or children, because even the implication of adulthood is something that is beginning to be negotiated in the books that make up Riordan’s series of mythological reinterpretations) as saviours. These saviours are usually a group of children rather than a singular child, and their narratives often involve them being thrust into these roles against their will, sometimes recruited into their efforts by adults who remain on the sidelines for large swathes of the narrative. Inevitably, the action ages them into hardened, heroic soldiers. In the Magnus Chase series, this is emphasised more than ever before. At one point in the novel Magnus casually remarks: “Most activities in Valhalla were done to the death: Scrabble, whitewater rafting, pancake eating, croquet. (Tip: don’t ever play Viking croquet.)” Death is a team-building exercise in Valhalla, and its inhabitants are largely American children (as mentioned previously) who are being trained as child soldiers in a final battle against adult gods.

Despite this scenario attempting to present itself within the presumptions of the Global North as "too civilised for child soldiers"—in which corporate analogies for "team building" have replaced "training to kill each other in order to survive"—this is a narrative that valorises the presence of child soldiers. Notably, in the Magnus Chase series this narrative is valorised in a way that has specific markers—unwilling recruitment from their previous lives, an abrupt cessation of contact with any members of their family or anyone from their original lives, constant training that hardens and ages them, violence specifically aimed at their bodies, the promise of lavish opulence to offset this constant violent rigour, the casual armament of young adults or children—all of which are horrific because they constitute an itemised list for brainwashing young people in general. Note that the einherji are not only children-as-soldiers in a war they didn’t ask to join, but here form the first line of attack and/or defence in it. This position is what is being sold to us as heroic, and the only reason this works—or is left unexamined within the really problematic frame of this being a scenario in which child-soldiering seems to be actively encouraged—is that these narratives are framed within the Global North (or the USA more specifically). It is the series's presumption that this shift removes these markers from their original investment in the violent history of conflicts often specifically attributed to various countries in the Global South where child soldiers are a terrifying reality. In effect, this is working within frameworks in which the Global North is automatically so civilised as to negate the use of child soldiers, even as these stories present them as fighting wars—only within parallel mythological realities to a largely unaware contemporary world. Thus, they are not only a secret, but this secrecy is a necessity to their being able to go about their work, as child soldiers, of saving the people of the world. It is the propaganda of justification.

To be fair to Riordan, this does seem to be a feature of the genre itself, and the last few years have seen an increasing proliferation of Young Adult literature populated by works that emphasise the heroism of children choosing to join warzones: Rowling’s Harry Potter series; Riordan’s own Percy Jackson series, Kane Chronicles, and indeed Magnus Chase series; Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and more. The odd in/visibility of this repeated theme occurs only because these are tales presented in the Global North. Imagine the same tale in a country in the Global South which sees the actual issue of child soldiers as something to prevent—Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Sudan, Liberia, Burma, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, etc.—and the same narrative takes on very different connotations, none of which feel particularly heroic. When taken in this context, I do think there are very good reasons why something like Nnedi Okorafor’s Nigeria-based narrative, Akata Witch (2011)—while still being a story about coming of age, becoming "special," and undergoing magical training at a school—is not a narrative about these skills being applied specifically to an unspecified war or warzone; instead, these children confront a serial killer whose victims tend to be young children. I can’t speak to Okorafor’s motives (or her plans for the next book in the series which might completely undermine this line of argument), but currently I do think this is because there’s less distance in that novel than in the Magnus Chase books between the reality of child soldiers and the notion of heroism that the genre tries to project onto the lack of choice inherent in their being recruited and forced into a war.

Additionally, all of this feels specifically placed within the context of race. Look at any book talking about the horrors of child soldiers in a warzone—David Rosen’s Child Soldiers: A Handbook (2012), J. Peter Pham’s Child Soldiers, Adult Interests (2005), Christine Ryan’s Children of War (2012), Peter Singer’s Children at War (2005), or, indeed, any web search for information on child soldiering—and note the images on the covers of these books and how, by and large, they’re all non-white ethnicities mostly from the Global South. This distance from the realities of violent warfare, the ability to separate this narrative from the connotations of horror and forced recruitment and reposition, and the tendency to present child soldiering as heroic by simply placing it within the US (or any country in the Global North)—all of these are part of the conceit of this particular subsection of Young Adult Chosen One literature. Once I became aware of this, I couldn’t unsee it within the novels, and every moment that talked about heroism as one of the child characters took up a weapon put my teeth on edge.

It’s possible to look at the sheer number of issues I’ve raised here regarding my reading experience and wonder why, then, I’m so keen to recommend these books. I find that more often than not, aside from wanting nuanced books that (like the majority of Riordan's) are good about representation and have interesting narratives, I want books that make me join conversations in which I learn things. Magnus Chase not only offers me that possibility, but the fact that Riordan reacts to criticism and works to improve means that this isn’t a conversation that repeats itself constantly across different series—or that, when it does, the exchange doesn’t have new elements in play. It’s the sort of thing I’m happy to put my money towards and recommend otherwise—I always want more people in the conversation.

Endnotes

[1] I use the term "disabled" instead of "differently-abled" as per Lydia X. Z. Brown’s article, in which they argue that the term "disabled" is not itself hurtful or offensive, and avoidance of the term only adds to popular stigma about disability. [return]

[2] It’s worth noting that there have been points at which Riordan seemed to improve with regard to this. In the Kane Chronicles, Cairo was set up as still very much a centre of Egyptian power and mythology. It’s odd how very basic it seems that books would acknowledge that Egyptian mythology might actually have its heart and culture in Egypt, but it remains an odd rarity to have this overtly acknowledged, particularly as media remains far more concerned with the effects of this exoticised and othered culture on the “civilised” lives of the Global North. (For examples, consider almost any popular media dealing with a mummy.) It definitely felt like a step closer to the right direction to have the protagonists of the Kane Chronicles be biracial and acknowledge their own heritage as part of the African and Egyptian diaspora, even as their selfhood was very strongly linked to North American understandings of the world and their identity within it.

That said, one of the only Egyptian characters to be part of the main narrative and survive the events of the series is Zia, who is originally introduced and then exposed at the end of the first book as a clay shell (inhabited by a version of her true identity), and then, when roused from a magical coma, presented as ancient. Much like Zia, Halfborn Gunderson is also of two coinciding times—truly of the past, uncomfortably present in the now. Each presentation of this doubling taken on its own may not seem like a concern, but within the neocolonial narratives being presented, it implicitly endorses the assertion that while an ancient civilisation might have been powerful and respected (and these characters function as representations of those times), its contemporary world and people are not—and are consequently absented from these narratives of global struggle and survival. [return]

[3] Having the representation of a happy arranged marriage, where both families and both parties care for each other and love each other, and everyone is on the same page, was a wonderful change. The Samirah-Amir relationship is wonderfully played out because it is placed front and centre in Samirah’s home life and given importance in the narrative by being repeatedly returned to within the course of the series—Samirah isn’t a caricature or a stereotype or a cardboard bastion of multiculturalism; she is complex, loves her grandparents and Amir, and is afraid of how they will cope with knowledge of her secret life, and thrilled by Amir’s knowledge and acknowledgment of her ambitions. I loved the fact that the first book made mention of Samirah’s love of flying and her longing to be an Arab-American pilot (knowing how incredibly unlikely this was, given the obstacles of racism, sexism, and xenophobia in her way), and the fact that the second book mentions that Amir arranged flying lessons for Samirah as a gift so she could live out her dream. This was easily one of my favourite moments in this or any book, hands down, because it wasn’t simply plugging a plot hole with regard to how the characters had access to a plane later, but also a reference to a growing relationship in which the people in question not only know each other but are working practically to make each other happy. There’s so little of this in contemporary writing in general, let alone presented so matter-of-factly in a complex relationship. [return]

[4] In The Kane Chronicles, Riordan explores the effects of systemic anti-blackness as the titular siblings Carter and Sadie Kane are both mixed race. Notably, Sadie Kane can “pass” as white, and this affects many aspects of their life, from their grandparents’ racist insistence on fighting for custody of her while ignoring Carter (who cannot “pass”), to the fact that they are often told (enragingly) that they cannot be siblings due to the visual disparity. Carter is depicted as hyperaware throughout the series whenever in public. He mentions his awareness of hostility aimed at him by white policemen, museum guards, and authority figures in particular, notes how often he is made to feel unwelcome in certain spaces, and is made aware that his father’s insistence on both of them dressing carefully in khakis and dress shirts is to preemptively push back against assertions that he and his father would not belong in the academic world of archaeology they inhabit originally. In a scene in an airport where Carter is fighting for his life, an intervening guard immediately and incorrectly reads him as the threat, and Carter is forced to deal with this. In a conversation on the topic, Zina Hutton pointed out that Carter’s experiences of dressing in order to fit in such that he disrupts white societal expectations is a form of respectability politics that has parallels in Blitz’s performance or presentation wherein his dapper suits are both literal and figurative armour against the world. [return]

[5] I consulted Corinne Duyvis and Kayla Whaley’s "(Not) Engaging with Disability: Convenient Approaches in SFF" and "Navigating Criticisms and Discussions of Disability Representation," as well as Devin’s "Guide to Writing Deaf or Hard of Hearing Characters" in order to frame this section of the review. [return]

[6] For example, in the case of the Greek gods in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, as readers we’re informed that all the gods of Olympus moved west with globalisation to follow the shifting centres of power—and consequently set up their domains in the United States. It is an implicit demand on the part of the series, and indeed of all of Riordan’s work in general, that we recognise the US as a seat of global power and culture that mandates whether or not the world survives. I found this intensely frustrating when I began originally to read Riordan’s work, and it continues to grate on me in the Magnus Chase series. To clarify: It's a complicated thing to transpose Norse mythology from its country of origin onto the United States, even within contexts of globalised narratives and the results of immigration and colonisation. That is, there's a fundamental problem with how often these mythologies are appropriated quite literally onto the geography of America, over and above their countries of origin—because this process is, in effect, very specifically about locating centres of power in America. And this is, again, coded in hierarchies of culture (because this is about providing a sense of historicity associated with the spread of what is termed by colonists as “civilisation” that is then appropriated by North American neocolonialist enterprise). The weight of the history of what is coded as “classic” mythology is transferred over to the new host culture.

In other words, the Magnus Chase series and the Kane Chronicles series before it look at artefacts as simply things, in and of themselves—having cultural heritages but not being specifically tied to locations or existing cultures and heritages. I admit, I found this far more problematic in the Kane Chronicles, which specifically dealt with museum collections of Egyptian relics in the US and France in particular (with no treatment whatsoever of repatriation of these artefacts and objects as a concept or ongoing struggle, or the manner in which “proper preservation” is used as an excuse to justify the neocolonial conceit wherein resources and culture were stripped from colonised people and now its lack is used as a reasoning to prevent its return). Notably, the Kane Chronicles does not so much confront this as explicitly reinforce many of these parameters by taking artefacts from Egypt, storing them “safely” in Brooklyn so as to prevent them getting into the wrong hands, and viewing the Egyptian node (or centre of power) as morally and culturally compromised. Magnus Chase, while telling a different tale, seems to function along similar lines where artefacts hold no context for their cultures and are simply tools to be used by whomever is best suited to their "preservation" and the maintenance of the status quo. This is definitely a problem for me with the narrative. [return]



Based in India, Samira spends most of her time explaining Nicolas Cage movies to her father and making bad puns. In her everyday life, she’s an academic. At night, she watches terrible TV and posts blurry pictures of her cat. It’s a life.
One comment on “Magnus Chase and the Hammer of Thor by Rick Riordan”
Remeres Jacobs

Wow. I love Riordan, but never saw his books in this light. Thanks for that.

 

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