Myth Monday: Ship of the Dead Review

I’ve been meaning to review the third book in Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard trilogy, which came out last October, but time is money and money is power and power is pizza and I REALLY LIKE EATING PIZZA, OKAY.

Belatedly or not, I’m going to tell you some reasons for why you should read these fun Norse mythology-inspired books, and also mention some of my quibbles with the third book. As you probably know if you read my blog, I’m a big fan of Riordan in general. And even though I’m a mythology nerrrrrrrrrd, I almost feel overloaded on the Norse side of things lately, between the Thor movies, Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology collection, and Rick Riordan’s trilogy. There are a lot of things to like about The Ship of the Dead, but also some letdowns.

SPOILER WARNING FOR MAGNUS CHASE AND THE GODS OF ASGARD TRILOGY.

I’M SERIOUS, FRIENDS.

I Need You To Complete My Empire of Ceramics

For me, the major selling point of this book and trilogy is the characters. Our protagonist Magnus, son of Frey the summer god, is a a precious beam of compassionate sunlight. There aren’t many healer-protagonists in this kind of adventurous genre, and Magnus combines teenage snark with genuine caring and a desire to make a difference. Anyway besides him, the supporting characters include: Samirah, Muslim Valkyrie of my heart; TJ, son of Tyr the war-god who literally can’t turn down a challenge; Mallory, Irish cannonball of fiery doom to her enemies; Halfborn, Viking cannonball of destructive doom to his enemies; and Alex Fierro, genderfluid child of Loki whose snark and tough love make me feel incredibly blessed. I love Alex’s pottery skills which are ACTUALLY USED IN BATTLE and I hope he/she takes over the world via ceramics one day. I love that TJ CAN’T turn down a duel, but he folds that into his sense of identity, even when he resents it. I love learning more about Mallory and Halfborn’s backstories also. And I haven’t even mentioned Blitzen and Hearthstone yet, but if you’ve read the previous Magnus books you are probably as huge a fan of this fashionable, ASL-speaking, dwarf-and-elf dynamic duo as I am.

My Dad is a God But I Don’t Believe in That Kind of Thing

Besides the characters, this trilogy does its best to explore the tensions between world faiths and religions and the older, legendary mythologies. The contrasts between Sam’s faith and Magnus’ atheism, especially, are really thoughtful. Both of these characters manage to believe in the Norse deities even though that seems, on the surface to be a contradiction, both to Sam’s faith in Allah and Magnus’ absolute belief in no higher powers. I like how Riordan plays with this paradox, with the tension between Sam’s belief in God and her father the god Loki, and with the tension between Magnus’ belief that there is nothing outside of this life, in spite of the fact that he literally died in book 1 and went to the Nordic afterlife. Sam is not at all bothered by the existence of gods and goddesses; she’s still certain that there’s a greater, higher Being running things out there. Magnus struggles with meshing his experiences with his atheism, but he, too, doesn’t change his core beliefs because of a silly little thing like a Norse god of a father. If nothing else, it proves that people have their beliefs and often they’re going to stick to them, no matter the evidence or lack of evidence.

So I Heard You Like Giants and World-Ending Battles

Okay, I mentioned Gaiman’s Norse Mythology earlier, which I read earlier this year. As good as that book was, it let me down in the Norse ladies-and-goddesses-department.  The Ship of the Dead, meanwhile actually made characters like Skadi, Gundon, and Frigg into intriguing, fully-formed characters, with voices and motivations of their own that I believed in. Skadi especially had some great scenes in here.

I really enjoy Riordan’s modernized versions of the Norse gods/goddesses for the most part, although I would have loved more Frigg and Tyr in these books. However, one of my biggest problems with this trilogy as a whole is Loki.  What I think is compelling about the original myths is that Loki isn’t a malicious villain so much as he is the actual embodiment of chaos. He causes trouble not because he wants to hurt people but because he’s amoral; he enjoys trouble and upsetting natural orders, he enjoys turning things on their head. There were some hints of ambiguity to his character in book 1, but only because Magnus didn’t know anything about him. As the trilogy progresses Loki is confirmed as a one-note villain; he’s chaotic evil instead of chaotic neutral; he wants to end the world because some dudes just want to watch the world burn. I find that boring. Yeah, sure, Loki is pissed that he was punished for murder and now he wants revenge on the gods. I’ve seen this plot before, it’s straightforward, and it’s been done better elsewhere. The only interesting twist to Loki here is that two of his demigod children are working against him to the best of their abilities. At least that adds some family drama to his megalomania and goals of world-domination.

It’s The End Of The World For Five Minutes

I didn’t love the overarching plot here because it relied heavily on evil doomslord Loki and not enough on actual warfare and logistics. Yeah, okay, Ragnarok is coming, Loki is bringing it about, Loki’s got a ship-full of monsters, ghouls, and bogeymen. Since Ragnarok is a Core Fact of Norse mythology and the story of the how the world ends, our heroes can only hope to delay it to a future time, not end the threat entirely. That’s fine, I like an ambiguous, fighting-the-long-defeat sort of battle. However, I never actually felt threatened that Ragnarok was imminent. I enjoyed the mini-quests of this book much more, especially how the Alderman subplot was tied up (I’m always here for a good subversive dragon-lair story).

Once Loki is defeated, apparently the ship of the dead…just….floats ….off? And goooooes wheeeere??? What are these monsters going to do next with their warship? How are they going to take over the world and kill everyone? Are they going to float around for centuries until Loki escapes again? I HONESTLY DO NOT KNOW and it’s surprisingly hand-wavy for a Riordan conclusion.

The good news is, Magnus’s future has never been brighter, even though he and his einherjar friends will all die in battle someday!

In Conclusion, You’re In For a Giant Good Time

All three of the Magnus Chase books are hilarious, gripping adventures, and The Ship of the Dead is entertaining and heartfelt, in spite of my qualms. PS I would die for Alex Fierro. Thank you, good night.

 

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Myth Monday: Eclipse Edition

As you may have noticed, we experienced an eclipse today. I live pretty close to the zone of totality, so I had a nice view of it.

Throughout the ages and throughout the whole world, people have been telling stories to explain eclipses. Humans really, really like telling stories to make sense of their lives, and especially of crazy things that happen to them,  like THE SUN GOING OUT and stuff like that.

So below is a quick list of some of the stories from different cultures/countries. Follow the links or do some research to find out more – there are way too many for one blog post!

  • There are many Native American legends, but one that I found in several places was about a boy who gets really mad at the sun for burning him, and so he gets the strongest cord he can find and uses it to trap and choke the sun. Many creatures try to rescue the sun but only the mouse is able to chew through the cord and save it. Here’s one version of it from the Menomini. All of the versions have the mouse as the hero. Other legends blame black squirrels for eclipses, but I couldn’t find a story about it.
  • Hindu mythology features a demon named Rahu, who tries to destroy the sun and moon. He is decapitated by the gods and then, depending on the version, his severed head chases after the sun and tries to eat it. I mean, you have to admire his persistence. Sometimes he manages to bite the sun, and that causes eclipses.
  • The Korean Bul-Gae, or fire dogs (awesome, right??), are also very interested in devouring the sun. They are servants of the king of the Dark World, who wants the sun and moon’s light for himself. They try to eat the sun and moon so that they can bring it to their master, but are burned or frozen by turns. Their attempts cause eclipses.
  • Norse Mythology has its own version of Bul-Gae: wolves named Skoll and Hati. These wolves fly through the sky after the sun and moon, and it is prophesied that during Ragnarok, Skoll and Hati will capture the sun and moon at last, creating an eclipse as the world ends. There’s a really good write-up on them here.
  • Last but not least, there is the myth of Amaterasu, the Japanese sun goddess. She is enmeshed in a struggle against her brother, Susano. Their rivalry escalates until they’re spawning gods and goddesses left and right, and throwing dead horses, and all kinds of similar nonsense. Eventually, Amaterasu decides she has had enough and hides herself in a cave. This causes an eclipse, which makes everyone is very upset and they decided to team up to trick her into exiting the cave.

Amaterasu_cave_edit2.jpg
Amaterasu emerging from the cave. Source
I’m surprised that there aren’t more that are simply about hiding, disguising, or kidnapping the sun; most of the ones I looked at involved destroying or devouring it. I’m sure there are many more stories that I didn’t find, though. Let me know in the comments of any I missed!

Thanks to gingernifty for this week’s topic! If you have an idea for a Myth Monday topic, comment below.

Myth Monday: Norse Mythology (Review)

I read Norse Mythology and I liked it, somewhat to my surprise.

30831912.jpgDon’t get me wrong. I’m a casual Neil Gaiman fan, and some of his books I love very much (if you’ve read The Graveyard Book, let’s hold each other).  The nice thing about Neil Gaiman is that he has written a lot of books, for all ages and in many different mediums, so if you don’t care for the content level or subject of one book, you might love another, as he is a very skilled writer no matter the genre.

I really love Norse mythology (big surprise), and while I know Neil Gaiman can use mythological influences to devastating effect in his work, I wasn’t sure about how well he could retell the original stories – playing the “straight man,” as it were, rather than re-imagining or spinning or twisting the myths into his own stories.

I really appreciated Gaiman’s introduction to this book: he makes it clear that he is not writing a comprehensive work on these myths, but instead “picking and choosing what tales I wanted to tell and how I wanted to tell them, blending versions of myths from the prose and from the poems.” He also acknowledges the difficulties; for example, how many Norse myths we’ve lost, so that some gods we know the names of but little else.

The stories themselves are told with characteristic Gaiman skill and beauty; some of them are very poetic, not in a confusing way, but in a satisfying, let-me-sit-here-and-savor-that-sentence way. The stories are well-paced and entertaining, with occasional sly humor, as well as a good sense of dramatic tension, in spite of the stories’ age. for All of them are told with directness and clarity, wasting no words and lavishing no sentimentality.

Gaiman doesn’t sugar-coat the myths by any means, either! Norse myths can be gross, violent, disturbing, or all three at once. The gods have a tendency to resort to murder or cruel punishments when they’re pissed off or feel wronged – they’re not in charge because they’re virtuous. Gaiman doesn’t shy away from showing this, and achieves a nice balance of humor and gravitas when dealing with some of the more shocking or disgusting stories.

On the other hand (and oh my gosh I can’t believe I’m saying this), Gaiman is a little hard on Loki. Yes, he does some despicable things (which don’t necessarily stand out against the despicable things some of the other gods do at times – I’m especially looking at you, Thor and Odin), but he is a Trickster archetype, and his main goals in life generally have to do with causing mischief and throwing the natural order into chaos. In Gaiman’s stories, Loki is very intentionally a malicious, villainous creep. It’s Gaiman’s right to tell the story that way and it’s my right to completely disagree with it.

Gaiman’s narration, as I touched on above, is really good for the most part. However, he is inconsistent with the way he uses the narrator to occasionally break into the story. I couldn’t figure out what rhythm or reason he was using. Most of the stories didn’t have narrator interjections at all; some had a little, and some suffer from multiple paragraphs of the narrator introducing the story. “The Mead of Poets,” for example opens with “Do you wonder where poetry comes from? Where we get the songs we sing and the tales we tell?” and goes on at length from there before finally starting the darn story.

My other quibble is the near-erasure of Sif, Sigyn, and Frigg (all goddesses). The stories he chose mostly focus on Thor, Loki, and Odin. We only get one Frey story (he’s a fertility god and one of the most well-loved by the original audiences of these myths), and Freya (another goddess and Frey’s sister) shows up in only a handful.  I expected better from Gaiman on this point.

Overall, I liked this collection enough to read it again and recommend it. If you like Neil Gaimain or mythology, I recommend it. If you’re looking for more on Norse mythology, there’s a nice list here, including my personal favorite, The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland.