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Runemarks    by Joanne Harris order for
by Joanne Harris
Order:  USA  Can
Knopf, 2008 (2008)
Hardcover, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Though presented as a YA story, Runemarks - quite a departure from Joanne Harris's usual contemporary novels - works just as well as fantasy for adults. It's deeply immersed in Norse mythology, and set in a post-Ragnarok world (Ragnarok being, according to Wikipedia an apocalyptic conflagration, 'the final battle waged between the Ăsir, led by Odin, and the various forces of the giants or J÷tnar, including Loki, followed by the destruction of the world and its subsequent rebirth.' Since the great war which the Ăsir lost - remembered as Tribulation - servants of the Order work night and day studying the Word at World's End. They Cleanse anyone who works cantrips, runecharms, or - worst of all - glamour.

Runemarks opens on young Maddy Smith - who has had a rusty sigil marked on her hand since birth - dealing with an infestation of goblins in the cellar of the Seven Sleepers Inn where she works. Maddy is a dreamer among folk who 'made every effort never to dream' and refuse to discuss anything at all uncanny, fearing that 'it was in Dream that the power of the Faerie remained, awaiting its chance to re-enter the world.' Maddy - a wild, awkward, sullen girl considered a troublemaker by the villagers - uses her knowledge of runes to catch herself a goblin. She inadvertently sets a glam on World Below that unleashes a flood of 'bilge and vermin' into the cellar. After closing the door on that mess, Maddy ascends to find that her friend and magical mentor, curmudgeonly old One-Eye, is back in Malbry village.

Years before, One-Eye tasked Maddy with keeping a watch on nearby Red Horse Hill, where goblins guard a treasure underground. Now, Maddy's use of magic has awoken the Whisperer under the Hill. One-Eye sends her into seemingly endless passageways of World Below to extract this very dangerous treasurebefore someone else acquires it. She meets her goblin, Sugar-and-Sack (who continues to play a key role in the story) and enlists his help as a guide. After being abandoned by Sugar, Maddy meets a young man with a crossbow who calls himself Lucky, and together they extract the Whisperer. But nothing is what it seems, and an Oracle predicts a second Tribulation, 'a traitor at the gate', and a sacrifice.

Soon, Maddy learns who she really is. She's embroiled in a quest alongside Loki the trickster - trailed by both One-Eye and Sugar-and-Sack - to free Thor from the Netherworld at the door of Chaos. To get there they must pass Hel's kingdom and Dream. Along the way, Maddy awakens sleeping Norse gods of yesteryear and the very angry Skadi the Huntress - bringing their old feuds and agendas back to life with them. It seems that all of them have issues with Loki, as do his unusual children). Maddy attracts the attention of the Order and its powerful Examiners, who are working towards their own goal. And ordinary people, like parson's ugly wife Ethelberta, do extraordinary things.

Before Maddy's adventure ends, Order confronts Chaos in what looks like 'the final End of Everything'. But of course - aside from the anticipated sacrifice - all ends well. As this story closes, Maddy muses that 'It isn't over' and 'where Folk dream, the gods will never be far away.' Joanne Harris has made a remarkable fantasy debut (that, despite the juvenile cover, adults will enjoy just as much as teens) in Runemarks, and I hope she will give us more soon!

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