Book Review: Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman

nm5Note: I will be spoiling the format (something I was glad not knowing beforehand, just because I wanted to experience it knowing nothing except it was his retelling of Norse myths), and some minor plot points (i.e. what some of the chapters entail in broad strokes).

New Neil Gaiman releases are always an event for me. Although he’s been publishing one book per year lately (or more, if you count adaptations, re-releases, etc.), that’s only sort of half-true, as his last two publications were a short story collection and essay collection.

Which those are great too, don’t get me wrong—but it’s not often you get a new piece of longer prose from him is what I’m getting at. His first adult book in 8 years, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, was only barely longer than a novella, and here, too, it’s an extremely short book and not a traditional novel. Instead, Gaiman creates his own retelling of the Norse myths, with its own unique format.

And I had been highly anticipating this ever since I first heard rumors of its release. Like I said, new Gaiman releases are extremely exciting for me, not only because he’s my favorite living author, but because each and every one of his works is wholly unique, even down to the way they’re written: American Gods is an amazing epic, above and beyond just the label of “novel”; Anansi Boys is a sequel that’s not quite a sequel, and Gaiman’s own take on the hero’s journey in its own unique way, as well as being more comedic than usual; Good Omens was co-written; Stardust is more like a YA novel and a fantastic romance; Ocean is a novella that’s the perfect length for what it is, a book about death and grieving and growing up and living; Coraline and Graveyard book are for young readers, and amplified by their illustrations; and Neverwhere is perhaps his most “traditional” novel, in terms of how it’s written, but the book inside is anything but traditional, a book about homelessness and mysterious worlds and more.

But that’s exactly what I love about Gaiman—the uniqueness of each book he writes providing a completely different experience every time but also a completely Gaimanesque experience in their own way. So I preordered it from Barnes & Noble and read it the day it arrived, 5 days early (and then promptly exchanged it at my local B&N for a signed copy, paying the difference of the onine/in store price, because they had a signed one!).

Norse Mythology, in particular, I knew next to nothing about in terms of format. Was it a bunch of individual myths? Unrelated short stories? A novel using the characters in Norse nm7myths? I didn’t care, and I’m glad I didn’t try to find out beforehand, as opening the book for the first time while also knowing the format for the first time was great. All I knew going in was that he was creating his own book of myths, and that sold me.

In terms of format, though, I think Gaiman chose the best way of going about retelling the myths, weaving individual stories together to make a cohesive story with roughly stand-alone vignettes. This allowed a unique connection to his characters, as there were often hints to previous stories—not something that you would necessarily feel left out if you hadn’t read, but hints that just make you go “I remember that”, and go toward a more immersive, inclusive experience.

As usual for Gaiman, the writing itself was beautiful and engaging. He tells the myths in his own voice, as if he’s talking to you by a campfire. He expertly handles the fantasy and mythology, making the ridiculousness of some of the stories not necessarily non-ridiculous, but more believable to the extent that you could imagine these being passed down generation to generation, giving a realistic weight to such fantastical stories. If he was telling these to you in person, you’d want to believe them.

Unusual for him, though, the writing is much more… cut-and-dried, if you will, telling just the bare bones of the story. It’s not an epic novel, but rather a collection of camp-fire stories. Which made me constantly wish there could be more—that the journeys could be longer—yet at the same time, that lack never took away from the quality at all, but instead just left this perfect medium of wanting more but being completely satisfied.

In the introduction he mentions how his own first introduction to Thor was through the Marvel character in comics, which is basically my own background, too, though in later incarnations. I’ve always loved what I’ve read of the Norse myths, and I’ve loved stories inspired by them (like Tolkien’s Valar, etc.), and I always knew about the god Thor, but my first time really seeing him as a character was in Marvel comics.

I think Gaiman realizes how this is possibly common, as he writes the stories as very accessible, spending time with each of the main characters to give them a character, and not necessarily the traits you’d expect.

Which really just made for a super fun story. I often blend characters in pantheons together a little bit, or just separate them into their stereotypical characters. But Gaiman gives a depth to each and every one. Yes, they’re still gods of mythology with the usual stereotypes, but Gaiman makes the stereotypes believable and real.

Out of the main cast of characters, Loki might be my favorite. I’ve always loved trickster figures, but Gaiman adds an extra layer here that puts him in a sort of slightly more positive light, or at least a more complicated one. And discovering so many “minor” characters through these myths was so enjoyable—I fell in love with the Norse world, and now I want to read anything I can about them. I particularly loved Heimdal, as from the Marvel films he always seemed like a cool character but never allowed any growth; here, though, his awesomeness is just expanded.

And I really love the way he portrayed the women in the myths. Having not read many Norse myths previously, I can only assume that they weren’t treated as well, and relating it to Greek myths and others it seems as though he kept the general concept of the stories while also not going against his feminist ideals; it seems like they’re still true to their original characters, but just done in a more positive light (of course, this again coming from someone who hasn’t read “original” versions). Again, he just gives character to each nm3character, regardless of gender, and that’s something I’ve always admired and loved about Gaiman’s works.

As I mentioned, each story builds on the other, making references to previous stories, etc., and are done in the perfect medium between one long story and completely stand-alone stories. They exist in a middle of those two extremes with connective tissue but not relying on each other, either. One thread in particular that kept coming up was Ragnarok. All I knew about it beforehand was that it’s the “end of all things”, an apocalyptic event. Gaiman uses that notion by continually making references to it, building up its looming threat which all culminated perfectly in the last two sections of the book.

It’s weird because on one hand I wish a whole book could be used for the last chapter, but at the same time I thought it was done perfectly. I guess what I’m saying is I feel Gaiman could’ve written an epic à la American Gods just on the last section, but also perfectly handled just the camp-fire-length/style story he chose to tell.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the introduction in more length. I can’t say they’re my favorite things about Gaiman books (because I mean, the books are of course fantastic), but in some ways they kind of are. What he says, and how he goes about them, is exactly what I wish every author would do—it’s just his thoughts, his background on the writing, etc., and they’re just always so interesting and fantastically done. And this one is no exception. I was already at what I thought was my peak excitement to read this book, but the introduction managed to up it even more—I felt like he was talking just to me, inviting me to read the stories he had conjured.

He also mentioned several other books where he got inspiration or where he was introduced to the myths, which I immediately added to my “to-buy” list. Especially after reading Gaiman’s version, I can’t wait to read others. And again he mentions Ragnarok right off the bat, building it up before the stories even began.

“…when I finished the stories and read them as a sequence, …they felt like a journey,” he says in the intro, and indeed, that’s exactly what the book felt like. A magical journey through a mythological place with Gaiman as your guide.

Could you ask for anything else?



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