I’m fond of Rick Riordan. I used to read his books to my son when my son was little, and when he he learned how to read, the first thing he went for was Riordan’s first “Percy Jackson” series. My son’s got a penchant for Fantasy overy Science Fiction, and the books are (mostly) fun, but with some darkness here and there, and aimed pretty solidly at an eighth grade reader. Good Juvie Fiction, or as the hip kids call it these days, “Young Adult Fiction.” (I hate that name, BTW)
“Magnus Chase” is Riordan’s fourth series set in the Percy Jackson universe (Or “Percyverse,” as I call it). This can best be describes as “American Gods Lite.” There are no gay Muslim cab drivers having sex with genies in the back seat, or love goddesses who eat men while having sex, and the gods are not so hardscrabble and down on their luck in Riordan as they are in Gaiman, but the basic hook is the same: the pagan gods are real, and still interact with the human world. In both Percy Jackson series, it’s the Greek gods, in the Kane Chronicles trilogy, it’s Egyptian gods. Here we finally get to the Norse gods.
I say “Finaly,” because the Norse gods are cool. They are violent, entertaining, frightening, and don’t even pretend to have an interest in good or evil. However they are also brave, doomed, inquisitive, sometimes hilarious, and sometimes even apologetic. Yeah, true, Odin’s own followers occasionally described him as “the Evil God,” and Thor was prone to murderous rages. But Thor felt bad about his mercurial temper and often tried to make ammends, and Odin suffered terribly to bring poetry and beer to humanity, so as to make our miserable existences bearable.
I can not stress the “Brave” part strongly enough. This is a quality that the Greek and Egyptian gods do not have, nor can they. They are immortal. They can’t be killed. If there is no risk, there is no bravery. The Norse gods can be killed, and they know full well they’re going to die at the end of the world, but they’re out there fighting anyway. There is risk, there is bravery, and there is nothing more brave than going out to fight a battle knowing full well it will kill you.
Ok, this brings us to the actual “Review” portion of this review.
It’s present-day Boston, and Magnus Chase is a homeless kid who’s been living on the streets for two years. He eventually comes in to unwanted contact with his only living relatives, one of whom kidnaps him, tells him he’s a demigod, and forces him to recover a lost magical Norse sword from the river. In the process of doing this, he dies.
He wakes up in Vallhalla, which is essentially a huge five-star hotel featuring superlative acomodations, a large number of interesting dead people, huge jovial meals, endless combat in the courtyard, and activities that range from “Mele fighting to the death” to “Yoga to the death.” No, I’m not kidding. There’s also a pervading sense of boredom. No one has seen the Gods in years, and Asgard itself appears to be in disrepair.
Typically, things go sideways pretty quickly. There’s a debate as to whether or not he’s supposed to even be in Asgard, as it’s unclear if he meets the requirements. There’s a nebulous prophecy that the world will end in nine days. Loki, the Big Bad of the universe, keeps appearing to warn Magnus that he (Loki) doesn’t want it to end. Magnus goes rogue trying to save the world with an ad-hoc team consisting of himself, a de-frocked Valkyrie, and two different kinds of elves. They’re being chased by teams from Valhalla, who have concluded Magnus and chums are working for Loki, trying to hasten the end of the world.
From there we have the normal adventure stuff. We visit three of the nine worlds (Four counting earth), there are giants, and we meet a few gods along the way. The good guys win, but the bad guys simply go to work on another plan.
As with all Riordan’s stuff, the fun largely comes from the juxtaposition of the divine and the mundane. Odin has an I-phone, but it took him 10 days standing in a blizzard to figure it out. Thor is obsessed with Game of Thrones and Arrow. (“This is my 3622nd consecutive deployment protecting the border of Midgard. I’d go crazy if I didn’t have something to distract myself”) Everyone hates how Marvel Comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe have represented them.
The core cast is somewhat more diverse than usual: Magnus is a white homeless kid, a seldom-seen kind of protagonist, particularly in this sort of book. Samirah is an Iranian-American, and a good Muslim, despite being in the service of Pagan gods. She’s bethrothed to an arranged marriage when she turns 18, however, interestingly, she’s looking forward to it. (“Don’t think everything traditional is bad, Magnus. You don’t know anything. Our families wouldn’t knowingly make a bad match, and I’ve been in love with this guy since I was twelve”) Also quite unusual. We’ve got a handicapped deaf mute white elf, and we’ve got an almost-definitely-gay svartelf who wants to ditch the whole “working the forges” thing and open his own fashion store. Magnus is also an atheist, which is the first time they’ve touched on that in these books. Previously, whenever the subject of whether or not there’s a “High God” over all these events has been blown off with “Don’t worry about it,” answers.
This is the first of Riordan’s books that borrows rather openly from other works. The magic concerning Magnus’ sword and its use of energy is exactly like the way magic works in Paolini’s “Inheritance” series. There’s a blowoff gag reference to “American Gods,” there’s an out-of-nowhere reference to the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series (Specifically a riff on Marvin the Paranoid Android), a possible-but-unlikely reference to Dr. Who, and a funny swipe taken at the first Percy Jackson book.
So it’s a fun read, and if you’ve got Jr High/High School age kids, you could do far worse. I recommend it.
And yet, and yet, and yet, and yet…well…it’s kind of sugarless, you know? The first Jackson series had a plan, a beginning, a middle, and an end. While book 3 was a very weak link, the final book ended very strong. The Kane trilogy was tighter, stronger, and more interesting than the first Jackson series, though it has the typical Riordan problem of going to great lengths to introduce new secondary team members, most of which will have no payoff in subsequent books. The second Percy Jackson series was a disappointment. Despite a very clever premise, it was disjointed, and was in all honestly rather weak, as though the author was running out of steam, or was padding out a trilogy up to five books, or was simply bored with the material, or, more likely, all three.
This book falls somewhere between. In terms of plotting and pace, it’s probably better than the first Percy Jackson book, but the characterization is much weaker than in the Kane books. Magnus is a little quicker on the uptake than Percy, though I think that’s mostly because this is the fourth time we’ve seen new characters go all gee-gosh-wow as they gradually come to grips with their true natures. He gets that tedious stuff out of the way quickly. Magnus is informed by his backstory as a street kid, but in personality he’s not really substantially different than Percy was. His voice is almost the same, but we know Riordan is capable of stretching as Carter Kane felt very different than Percy. The other members of the team are rather thinly defined. Not awfully so, but they just don’t feel very thick, if you know what I mean. Despite some nice flourishes here and there and a good sense of humor, the whole “unsuspecting hero racing to save the world from an ancient prophecy of destruction” thing has been done ten times in fourteen books over ten years, and there’s a feeling that the author is simply going through the motions.
That doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, it’s just not an instant classic. It was a fun read, however, and as I said, I recommend it.