James Lovegrove is an inventive and accomplished author whose work I'm always excited to read. Unfortunately The Age of Odin doesn't display his talents to their best advantage.
The problem isn't that Odin is the third of a trilogy, following on from The Age of Ra (2009) and The Age of Zeus (2010). These recent forays into a futuristic world where ancient pantheons return are stand-alone novels—although all three involve a soldierly type contending with divine beings.
The Age of Odin is about human beings interacting with Norse Gods. This concept has already been explored extensively in science fiction by authors as various as Douglas Adams (The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul, 1988), Neil Gaiman (American Gods, 2001), Kosuke Fujishima (Oh My Goddess!, 1988-present), Tom Holt (Odds and Gods, 1995) Robin Jarvis (Tales from the Wyrd Museum, 1995-1999), and Diana Wynne Jones (Eight Days of Luke, 1975). Lovegrove, writing in his blog, describes his approach as "the Norse pantheon, depicted in a way that I doubt anyone has seen before." But when the narrative path you take has been so well-trodden it's a challenge to produce something off the beaten track.
The result is a pantheon of ancient gods who act like humans. Odin is an enigmatic friendly general in a hat, tilted to hide the missing eye. The Norns have traded in their spinning for video recorders, but haven’t yet upgraded to BlueRay. Thor has a hammer but he uses it for bashing stuff not producing thunderbolts. Bragi the poet writes doggerel and watches soap operas. When our hero, ex-Corporal Gideon "Gid" Coxall, encounters Odin and company he assumes they are a cult brainwashed by the Odin character's Norse obsession and on the available evidence this is a reasonable conclusion.
This isn't ultimately a new or original approach and although all the ingredients are there (a feasting hall with plentiful mead, ravens for Odin, a rainbow bridge) they've been rendered very mundane. Frost giants are depicted as abominable snowmen with ice weapons. This allows Gid to interact with the gods on a human level, fighting, flirting, and making plucky suggestions, but it's not exactly awe-inspiring.
Later in the book the rather pastoral, if snowbound, landscape becomes the setting for a high tech battle and here Lovegrove hits his stride. The few technological touches introduced earlier come into their own—modern rifles, Valkyries on Snowmobiles, a Chinook helicopter named Sleipnir—as an ancient enemy attacks with high tech versions of the antagonists of the sagas. There are JOTUN and SURT cyber warriors, Fenrir is a mega tank and Jormungand appears as an immense metal serpent with a lethal sonic attack.
At its heart this is a military adventure story with mega tech. It's a vehicle designed to star Gid as the sometimes foolhardy but generally respected platoon leader whose berserker rages win him admiration from Aesir and frost giants alike, but who can demonstrate enough tactical skills for Odin to consider him a wise counselor and is hot enough in the sack to bag Freya for al fresco sex. When Gid is swashbuckling through the snowy forests or exchanging quips with his fellow human soldiers or godly companions, it's a fun and enjoyable read.
Gid's insouciance is often appealing and he's a very accessible hero, not genre-bound in his outlook. He's not a very deep thinker though and inclined, at moments of high tension, to be maudlin over his failed marriage and non-relationship with his son, then conveniently forget both ex-wife and son once the danger is over.
But sometimes the quipping and straight-talking aspect of the hero grates. If the man nips out to take a slash, how believable is it that he would pick Yggdrasil as a convenient place? Calling the shape-changed female Loki a "shemale" will be more offensive to some readers than to the intended target of the insult. And occasionally it appears that Gid's idiolect is out of control or Lovegrove has stopped paying attention by the end of a paragraph. "Either an attack was coming or it wasn't. Either Loki was going to make his move or he wasn't. The choice was his. Ours was whether to be caught with our knickers around our ankles or not, and we definitely wanted to avoid the 'not' option" (p. 382). A small error, but an irritating one.
But then Gid doesn't need to be a deep thinker because neither he nor the reader is really expected to grasp the reasons why there are Norse Gods gallivanting over the landscape. The closest we come to an explanation is that the gods were formed from the human imagination and as long as they are written about or thought about will retain some measure of existence—although not with all the cool kit they had before. This isn't a new idea. It's old enough for Pratchett to parody in 1992 in Small Gods. The location of Valhalla, and its relation to the "nine worlds" is left vague and it's woefully unclear what exactly the gods' remaining powers and abilities are.
As Gid exclaims "let's Ragnarok and roll," the final battle kicks off. It's another technological set piece, Nagelfar is represented as a monstrous ship, and again Gid thinks his final moment has come, mourns his failed relationships, and escapes by the skin of his teeth. It's unclear if this is really the end of times or just another fight along the way. Enough of the major players of the Norse pantheon have been taken down by this stage that perhaps it really is the end—but then again, what about this power of belief explanation? Will the dead Gods reincarnate as long as writers and storytellers believe in them?
And for the final time Lovegrove ducks the question and ends the novel with the ultimate clichéd conclusion: the one junior school children learn to reject as weak and meaningless.
As sometimes happens when I'm unimpressed by a book I wonder if I'm missing something. The Guardian called The Age of Odin "the kind of complex action oriented SF Dan Brown would write if Dan Brown could write." But James Lovegrove can write—and he's capable of writing much better than this. Pick The Age of Odin up as throwaway holiday reading and read it on a beach or by the pool, then leave it behind because this isn't one to re-read. It's a chuckle, a half smile, and a way to pass the time.
Rhiannon Lassiter is an author of science fiction, fantasy, contemporary, magical realism, psychological horror, and thrill novels for teenagers. Her favorite authors include Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Mahy, and Octavia Butler. Her own novels explore themes of identity, change, and becoming. Rhiannon lives and works in Oxford, United Kingdom. Her ambition is to be the first writer in residence on the Moon. Find out more at rhiannonlassiter.com.