Runemarks by Joanne Harris

I read Chocolat by Joanne Harris a few years ago, and enjoyed it overall. I think I like it better in retrospect than I did at the time, in part because my book club had a very good discussion of it. I definitely remember that the movie was not as good as the book (except maybe for Johnny Depp’s scenes). That’s the only Joanne Harris novel I had ever read, so I didn’t really know what to expect about this one. I will admit that this type of fantasy isn’t really my favorite kind of book (I only realized that in the past year or so, that I actually shy away from fantasy in favor of realistic fiction), but the world within these pages is so real and full that it drew in even a skeptic like myself.

Maddy is a young woman who was born with a runemark on her hand, one that gives her magical skills and marks her in her community as a witch. The truth is much more complicated than that, and as Maddy discovers her destiny, she finds herself caught up in a battle between ancient gods and the people who fear magic, a journey that includes waking the Seven Sleepers, a trip to Hel, and battling between good and evil, Order and Chaos.

I have never had much of a mind for mythology, I must confess. In high school, we were supposed to read some mythology over Christmas break, and I tried. I really did. But all the bickering and scheming and conniving wasn’t really my cup of tea, and I never finished the assignment. In college, I took a class on Greek Comedies that helped me understand some of the stories of the gods a little bit better, and a couple of years ago I struggled through Don’t Know Much About Mythology, but that’s the extent of my mythological knowledge. If you make a reference to a Greek or Roman god, I am probably going to understand what you are talking about, or at least have a decent idea to which story you are referring. But that’s basically it.

This book was very mythological in nature, specifically Norse mythology, and featured such characters as Odin, Loki, Thor, and Hel. You don’t have to know these stories specifically, though, to make sense of the book – if you know any mythology at all, the ways that the gods interact will be familiar to you. It certainly felt that way to me. I must give Joanne Harris credit – these mythological gods came alive for me in ways that they haven’t before. She was able to make them real.

This book, while long, would be a great introduction for a teenager interested in mythology. The myths themselves would be much more compelling after being introduced to the characters in this way. Even apart from the mythology, it’s a great story – an unwanted, unloved young woman finding her place in the world (not to mention finding the world to be much bigger than she thought), using powers she didn’t even know she had, becoming a part of something much larger than herself and her village. It’s a story we can all relate to, but the characters and the way it is told really make it something special.

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