Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Ragnarok Book 1: The Hammer (Ragnarok #1) by Brian James

Odin learned he was going to die in Ragnarok when the Norns announced it at his birthday party (with an impromptu performance of It’s a Dead Man’s Party. They never got on well); after dumping the Norns in a nursing home in Des Moines (the Norse gods being quite happy with “shoot the messenger”) he descended ever deeper into paranoia – finally locking all the gods out of Asgard to make their living on Midgard.

Odin himself set up a very powerful defence firm with the long term goal of surviving Ragnarok. Thor, not particularly a fan of his father, became an NFL player and left bodies of quarterbacks in his wake and Freya tried to get along as well as she could as a sex worker

Until Baldr escaped Hel, Jormungandr woke up and Loki escaped. Ragnarok is coming – and we now have multiple powerful gods, fire giants, Valkyries and who knows what else all scheming and plotting for the last battle – a large amount of which revolves around Thor and Freya who would much rather be left alone.

This book is funny. In fact, there are places where this book is hilarious. There are pop culture references galore, snipe one liners, gloriously irreverent depictions and summations of Norse mythology and so much really really really good snark. I spent a lot of time grinning like a fool at this book. I don’t think a smile ever left my face and there were several moments when I laughed out loud. There were even a couple of moments where I laughed so hard I fell out my chair and someone had to help me up because I was laughing too hard to get up on my own.

And I love that – how could I not love a book that can reduce me to helpless, breathless laughter?

Sadly, I don’t love that book because the humour is what stops me hating it and what kept me reading it. I loved the jokes, I loved the humour, I loved the hilarity – but that was kind of all I loved.

The writing is slow. It’s clunky. We have very long, rambling recaps of Norse mythology. Very long, rambling explanations of various things as well as very long, and yes, rambling internal monologues. The story drags along for a long time, we have a lot of really unnecessary information about characters that don’t mean a lot.

And it’s forced. When the humour hits its mark, this is one of the funniest books you’ll ever read. But at least a third of the humour didn’t – and there are vast tracts of the book that are there expressly to set up another joke. Or a scene is extended for more jokes or has more jokes inserted – or even a legitimately funny moment has 3 or 4 extra jokes clinging to it that don’t work. When it’s funny, it’s hilariously funny – but this book tries so very hard to be funny all the time and it doesn’t always hit the mark – which leads to further long, slow, clunkiness.

It doesn’t help at all that some of those jokes delve into the sadly typical fat jokes and a lot of gay jokes that range from tasteless to outright homophobic.

The same applies to the pop culture references. Some of them are amusing, some of them are funny – but that’s only a moderate percentage of the huge number that are rammed into the story, often feeling forced and often slowing things down.

The story itself, once we actually get down to it and cut through the writing, is great fun. It draws heavily from Norse mythology with some excellent twists. Thor as the terrifying, morose American football player is great fun, Odin in his paranoia about Ragnarok is an excellent character and concept for the whole book – all his plotting revolving around protecting himself from his prophesised doom. Badlr and his scheming is fun, all the gods following their own agendas are excellent – and Loki as head of Amway is one of my all time favourite portrayals. The actions scenes are fun, the gods crossing and double crossing and triple crossing is something I love – yes you can’t rely on anyone, but why would you? Absolutely no-one in this book owes anyone else any loyalty and there are more than enough grudges to go round.

The action packed confrontation at the end of the book is awesome with the factions splitting and forming and splitting again – it’s a really dramatic climax to a book that was slow.

But we have a problem – Freya. Freya is a pet hate for me in urban Fantasy because of the number of writers who reduce the goddess of prosperity, death, fertility, war and a whole lot more to a Love goddess. And by “love goddess” we mean sex object. And while this Freya isn’t the airheaded fool I’ve seen all too often, she is a sex object. She is the most beautiful woman in the world, she literally stops traffic and she’s a prostitute. And not a happy sex worker either – while the book explores her self-loathing and desperation and anger over having to be a sex worker, she is a sex worker entirely because she lives beyond her means. And she’s the goddess of love and still deeply unhappy and unfulfilled in her romantic and sex life – the goddess of love who find sex an unpleasant, dreary chore to be performed for money (even if she is happy to kill people who she finds insulting).

Then there’s the rape – Sif and Freya are both horrifically raped. And Freya is graphically raped in the book in the most horrific and horrendous terms. And while it is a major theme in Norse mythology – everyone always wants Freya – it’s unnecessary to this story.

There are positive points with Idun challenging beauty standards and the Valkyries resenting being treated as toys and playthings by the gods – but it’s also telling how many of the Norse gods who die in this book are female – especially the actually characterised ones rather than one off appearances.

We have one POC in the book, a black man called Simmons who acts as Odin’s subordinate. Simmons is pathetic, he’s loathesome, he’s cowardly, he’s pretty repellent. But he’s repellent in ways that go beyond the usual stereotypes of Black men – though do play very heavily into the stereotypes of fat men. He’s incredibly intelligent, amazingly good at his job and as broken self-esteem because he views himself entirely in terms of his looks; that low self-esteem made him a  prime target for Odin and Odin’s abuse – he revels in grinding Simmons down and Simmons fawning after him. Simmons in turn takes out that abuse on anyone weaker than him he can find, torturing and tormenting the helpless.

In all, we have a book that has a good story – that doesn’t kick in until later in the book – and moments of utter hilarity. But the book tries too hard to achieve that hilarity and really needs editing and cutting down to flow more easily – and a damn site less rape. This book is dragged up desperately by its humour – because it’s humour is truly amazing – but that humour is doing a lot of heavy lifting carrying the rest of the story