Romancing the Aesir
By Cheryl Morgan
Kim Wilkins is an Australian author who I have been hearing good things about, but most of whose output to date has been horror. When Gollancz sent me a book of hers involving Norse gods I decided to give it a try. Then I almost thought I had been suckered. Amazon UK lists Giants of the Frost as Book 2 of the Europa Cycle. Thereís nothing on the book itself to indicate that it is the second part of a trilogy, though it is clear from the text that thereís a lot of backstory to the charactersí lives. Eventually I worked it out. The Europa Cycle is not a trilogy, but a lose collection of novels based on various European mythologies. The previous volume, The Autumn Castle, is set in Germany, and doesnít appear to have any immediate connection to Giants of the Frost. But maybe it does. The important point is that you donít need to read the one book to enjoy the other.
So far so good, but this little bit of confusion turned out to be indicative of a more general problem in that Giants of the Frost isnít really sure what sort of book it is. Despite being packaged as a fantasy it is, as with so much fantasy these days, actually a romance novel. The heroine, Victoria Scott, has just broken off an engagement to some guy who was obviously a complete rat, and has sworn off love forever (hah!). A meteorologist by trade, she takes a job on a remote weather station on the Norwegian island of Othinsey, thereby stranding herself far from civilization in the company of a bunch of hunky Nordic males. Naturally romantic complications ensure. She has trouble with her lecherous boss, Magnus, and is courted by the sweet but geeky Gunnar (who is into Viking re-enactment and computer role-playing games).
Enter one tall, handsome stranger. But Vidar is no ordinary romantic hero. Heís a SNAG, which in this case stands for Sensitive New Age God. It turns out that Othinsey (tr. Odinís Island) is the Midgard end of Bifrost, and the Norse gods still notice what happens there. Vidar, one of Odinís sons, is fated to kill Fenrir the wolf at Ragnarok, but these days he has turned his back on the drunken pillaging, looting and raping still beloved of Thor and his boorish pals, and has instead taken up the interesting hobby of falling in love with unexceptional and slightly neurotic mortal women simply because they happen to be the heroines of romance novels.
Of course there has to be a little bit more to it than that. While Victoria might imagine herself to be a thoroughly modern woman scientist who doesnít believe in gods or magic, Vidar is convinced that she is the reincarnation of his lost love, Halla, a woman who was savagely murdered by Odin a thousand years ago. Heís pleased to have her back. His father is unlikely to see things the same way.
This is where things get confused, because it isnít just Victoria who doesnít believe in magic. The author doesnít appear to either. Vidar puts it like this:
My father, Odin, believes himself a god. My brothers, uncles, sisters and aunts believe it too. I once believed it of myself, for we age slowly and only die if careless, but I no longer believe we are gods. I know now that we are just a race of people; petty, brutal, stupid people.
And so the books goes. It is unfair to criticize a writer for not being Rob Holdstock, because his feeling for myth is exceptional, but it would have been nice to have some air of mystery in the book. Instead, for the most part, Wilkins writes the story as if it were a science fiction story. Everything is thoroughly matter-of-fact. The Aesir are simply long-lived aliens from another dimension. Except they arenít. If the Aesir are not gods, how come the Norns have the power of life and death over mortals with their spinning? How come Odin can control the weather? How come Vidar visited Hel in Nifelheim to bargain for Hallaís life? How come everyone worries about Ragnarok?
There are parts of the book that Wilkins does really well. Sheís done a nice job of taking a minor character from Norse myth and making him central to her storyline, just as a good fantasy writer should. She has also managed one of the best characterizations of Loki I have ever seen. Aside from the end of the book (which is dreadfully disappointing) heís a perfect picture of sly cunning. He has more brains than the rest of the Aesir put together, and heís utterly cynical. But no one has any respect for him, so he is reduced to playing tricks on people and making them hate him even more.
If only there were a little magic in this book, it could have been so much better. But maybe if you are writing romance novels disguised as fantasy you canít ask too much of your readers.