“The Gospel of Loki” by Joanne M. Harris: not what I expected but well worth the read.

The Gospel of Loki

I settled down to this book with considerable anticipation. I’d relished Joanne Harris’ “Gentlemen and Players” and “Chocolat”, packed as they were with original ideas, strong characterization, and a slightly mystical view of the world. I’ve been fascinated with Loki since I was a child. I discovered him in his Marvel Comics incarnation and was always puzzled that people preferred the oafish Thor to the brilliant Loki . My fascination with Loki even led me to read some of the Norse Sagas which although sometime tedious were wonderfully amoral and extraordinarily blood thirsty.

What I got when I started reading was not at all what I expected. That, of course, is my problem, not the author’s.

Perhaps I should have paid attention to the additional initial the author added to her name. I think now that she was flagging that Joanne M Harris was not going to write the kind of fiction Joanne Harris is famous for.

I should also have paid attention to the title “The Gospel of Loki: The Epic Story of the Trickster God”. Epic tales have a particular form and the idea that any story about Loki could be a Gospel, literally Good News, has to be a conceit or a trick.

There are lots of good things in this book: the language and the imagery are rich without being obtrusive, the  original Norse stories are faithfully rendered but made new by being seen through Loki (admittedly lying) eyes, and the scale and the pace of the book are epic. Perhaps the most admirable thing is the way Harris positions Loki, the ultimate unreliable narrator, to reveal some hard truths: that Chaos and Order cannot abide or even begin to understand one another, that humour is an honest but misunderstood act of rebellion and that not trusting anyone is a limitation and not a strength.

And yet I found myself wanting something more or different than I was being served. The book did not engage my emotions. It did not provide the intense intimacy that a novel told in the first person normally provides.

Then I realized that this book is so “novel” that it is not a novel at all but something much stranger and original.

It has now been some weeks since I finished the book and my memory of it is still fresh and bright. Harris’ Loki has taken up residence in my imagination. I don’t like him as much as my childhood Loki but I believe in him more. Surprisingly, I find that I have compassion for Harris’ Loki. Although he is an inveterate trickster, he is also the victim of a trick by Odin that ripped him from Chaos and bound him to a world that could never truly be home.

This is not a book to read if you are looking for escapist fantasy. It is a long song about the nature of chaos and order and the betrayal that is inevitable when the two meet. It is about fate and destiny and sustaining power of humour. It is, in fact, exactly what is says on the cover: an epic tale of a trickster god, except the real trickster is Odin.

If you’d like to listen to an extract from “The Gospel of Loki”, click on the SoundCloud link below

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