review; ragnarok

Title: Ragnarok
Author: A.S. Byatt
Pub. Date: September, 2011
Summary: As the bombs of the Blitz rain down on Britain, one young girl is evacuated to the countryside. She is struggling to make sense of her new wartime life. Then she is given a copy of Asgard and the Gods-a book of ancient Norse myths-and her inner and outer worlds are transformed.
Genre: Fiction, Fantasy, AWESOME

OH HEY WHAT UP 5 STARS. Okay, seriously you guys, read this book. It’s gorgeous, so so beautifully written. And there are Norse gods in it. And nothing is more badass than a Norse god.

The thin child learned to read very early. Her mother was more real, and kinder, when it was a question of grouped letters on the page. Her father was away. He was in the air, in the war, in Africa, in Greece, in Rome, in a world that only existed in books. She remembered him. He had red-gold hair and clear blue eyes, like a god.

Ragnarok takes places in the English countryside during World War II. The thin child (otherwise unnamed throughout the duration of the book) relocates with her mother while her father is off fighting. She comes across an old book of Norse mythology and it sets her imagination running.

The book also said that these stories belonged to ‘Nordic’ people, Norwegians, Danes and Icelanders. The thin child was, in England, a northerner. The family came from land invaded and settled by Vikings. These were her stories.

This book is not one to be read for plot, characters, or rich dialogue. In fact, as far as I remember, there are only two short sentences of dialogue in the entire story. Instead, this is a showcase for Byatt’s sheer talent for writing. The language in Ragnarok is absolutely breathtaking. There were countless passages I read and reread simply because the imagery was so beautiful. Ms. Byatt was even able to turn a description of a boat made from toenails into a gorgeous work of art.

There are no altars to Loki, no standing stones, he had no cult. In myths he was the third of the trio, Odin, Hodur, Loki. In myths, the most important comes first of three. But in fairy tales, and folklore, where these three gods also play their parts, the rule of three is different; the important player is the third, the youngest son, Loki.

The chapters alternate between the thin child’s perspective and that of Asgard and its inhabitants. With each chapter the tension built and I knew it was coming. I knew his chapter would be up soon and when I finally reached it, I wasn’t disappointed. It was everything I had hoped for and more.

Loki and I go way back. He’s one of my favorite mythological beings – Norse or otherwise – and I eagerly awaited his arrival. In a book not written for its characters, I felt Loki was the one character I truly got a feel for. As he hatched his plans I became downright giddy. The writing was such that I felt as though I were watching his scenes acted out, rather than reading words on a page.

The skies thickened and thickened. Things – Dises – leathery winged female things – wailed in the wind and perched on the crags, staring and screaming. Nidhøggr the great worm who gnawed the roots of Yggdrasil came out and sucked the blood from the dead as they law in the freezing slime. From the Kettlewood, where Loki lay bound among the geysirs – which still spouted hot – came a louder howl of wolves, wolves in the wood, wolves padding over the snow, wolves with blood on their fangs, wolves in the mind.

Wind Time, Wolf Time, before the World breaks up.

That was the time they were in.

Loki’s capture heralded in Ragnarok itself: the final showdown. Neil Gaiman did a spectacular job of capturing this moment in American Gods and I couldn’t wait to read Byatt’s take on the battle. In a word: stunning. I could vividly picture the entire world delving into chaos. I watched the battle-scarred gods fight against Loki’s wolves.

What I love about the story of Ragnarok is that it doesn’t have a happy ending and Byatt actually discusses that in the story. Long before the war the gods knew what was coming and what they would have to do. There are no good guys. There isn’t that long, drawn-out moment while the audience holds its breath, waiting to see if the underdogs can score that winning goal as time runs out. It is what it is and I love that.

Bunyan’s tale had a clear message and meaning. Not so, Asgard and the Gods. That book was an account of a mystery, of how a world came together, was filled with magical and powerful beings, and then came to an end. A real End. The end.

Despite its extremely short length (less than 180 pages!), Ragnarok is a sweeping epic and has earned a place as one of my tops reads of 2012.

Favorite Quotes:

They became raiders. They overran each others’ housesteads, howling and roaring, slaughtering the weak and emptying the meagre stores. They drank what mead there was, swallowed the wine as though there was no tomorrow, which they began to believe was true. Hungry creatures, hungry men, will eat anything. The battle-winners feasted among the dead bodies, which were being torn at by creeping, crouching beasts. They gripped each other and fell about the fire, fornicating with whomever was to hand, with whatever was to hand. They bit and kissed and chewed and swallowed and fought and struggled and waiting for the world to end, which it did not, not yet. They ate each other, of course, in the end.

This was the moment. This was the beginning of the end. These gods were gods who had existed in waiting, waiting to made a last stand.

The gods went over the bridge, Bifröst, the rainbow bridge that linked Asgard and Midgard. They were damaged already, when they set out. Tyr had lost his arm to the wold, Odin his eye to Mimir, Freyer had given away his magic sword, Thor’s wife, Sif, had seen all her magical hair fall away from her bald head. Thor himself, according to some poets, had lost the hammer he had thrown after the Midgard-serpent. Baldur had lost his life. There are two ways, in stories, of winning battles – to be sumpremely strong, or to be a gallant forlorn hope. The Ases were neither. They were brave and tarnished.


4 thoughts on “review; ragnarok

  1. Her writing just leaves me in awe, definitely one to reread. I didn’t know what to expect when I picked this up, but with Byatt, I’ll always pick her up and try to stay with her as she navigates worlds rich in imagery. Might have to pick up Neil Gaiman soon and see what he’s all about.

  2. Leah, Your reviews are so fantastic! I love how you get so excited about books and authors you love. I’m so proud of you, I could cry right now. XOXO-Mom

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