I’m going to start this review of Loki’s Wolves, the first book in a new series entitled THE BLACKWELL PAGES, by K.L. (Kelley) Armstrong and M.A. (Melissa) Marr, by saying that there is a good chance it really is a pretty decent Middle Grade book that a number of readers that age will enjoy. Not being that age, it is kind of hard for me to tell. That hasn’t stopped me from reviewing Middle Grade books before, but the truth is, if the book had strong characterization, a vivid sense of place, an internally consistent and well-paced plot involving a nice mix of action and quiet, rich language, I didn’t have to worry about its targeted age group; it was just “good” and I assumed those younger readers would fall in line. Based on my son’s usual concordance (he’s eleven), that philosophy seemed to work out well. But here comes Loki’s Wolves to mess me up, because it lacks so many (not all, but many) of those quality elements and so I’m left unsure whether the age group will respond as I do, or just shrug and merrily chug along in the story.
What I can say pretty confidently is that what is missing from Loki’s Wolves does prevent it from being any sort of crossover novel; it is a Middle Grade novel firmly ensconced in that age level; older teens and certainly adults will find it severely lacking.
If you’re familiar with Rick Riordan’s PERCY JACKSON/KANE CHRONICLE series, much of this story will sound familiar. In fact, I have to confess that early on I began to wonder if this were just some publisher’s cynical ploy to ride the Riordan mythology wave and also beat him to his already announced intention to add the Norse myths to his series that have already covered Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods. Let me be clear that I don’t think that is the case, but the problem is that it could have been, based on the writing.
Loki’s Wolves is set in Blackwell, South Dakota, a town filled with the descendants of the Norse gods. The story follows young Matt Thorsen (the not so well-hidden clue is in that last name) as he learns that Ragnarok — the final battle and potential end of the world — is on its way and he has a major role to play in winning it or perhaps attempting to stop it. To that end he must leave the safety of his hometown with what had been two of his least favorite people: Fen and Laurie Brekke, descendants of the trickster god Loki. Their early task — the main plot line of this first book in a series — is to gather others like them, including the descendants of the gods/goddesses Baldur, Frey, and Freya, amongst others. Ranged against them are adversaries both expected and unexpected, just as they also find aid in unexpected areas as well.
The novel starts out somewhat slowly as we get some backstory and introduction to Matt’s world — his family life, his community, his relationship with Laurie and Fen. Once Ragnarok’s coming is announced, though, things begin to pick up and then the trio is off on a whirlwind tour of the region, dealing with Norns, Trolls, and the like, as they attempt to collect their companions. The pacing is a bit off I’d say, moving somewhat jerkily between fast-paced action and very “talky” scenes as my son calls them. The action can get a little frenetic, but at the same time one never gets a sense of true danger. Sticky situations are resolved too easily or quickly and often it feels too arbitrarily, especially as several times it is due to some newfound power each of the characters starts to discover as they come into their godly inheritance. Another problem is the adversaries, at least so far, don’t appear all that terrifying or even competent.
The characterization aims at complexity, but I can’t say it often hits its aim, and too often feels quite predictable. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but suffice to say that very little came as a surprise with regard to character revelations or interactions.
The language zips along in serviceable fashion; it does what it needs to do, but only what it needs to do. “Rich” is not the word for it in terms of basic sentence level or in terms of imagery. The reader will never be startled by the language nor caught up in a particularly beautiful or unusual description. In fact, one of the book’s larger failings I thought was its utter lack of a sense of place. Had I not been told I was in South Dakota, or at Mount Rushmore, I would never have known where these scenes were taking place. Even so, that’s all I felt I knew — the geographic location — but not the place; it could have been Anytown USA, a green screen that remains green.
To be honest, after finishing Loki’s Wolves, I couldn’t quite figure out where all those pages (nearly 400) had come from — they weren’t devoted to setting, to imagery, to deep characterization or rich language. I guess it was mostly plot, but just a few days later and I’m having a hard time recalling too many details. Despite that, it felt all of its 400 pages.
As I said at the start, I’m obviously not the demographic here; it is difficult for me to judge whether this is a book that will appeal to the target group (I will update when my 11-yr-old son finishes, but the fact he is taking several days is already telling). Perhaps my expectations are just too high for a Middle Grade book. But I admit, I hate the sense that Middle Grade/YA can’t or shouldn’t or doesn’t need all those elements. I kept thinking of Icefall, by Matthew Kirby, which despite clocking in at a 100 fewer pages, or nearly 25% shorter, still manages to create an incredibly vivid sense of place and then people it with equally vivid characters — not just the main ones but secondary ones as well (and Nordic ones to boot). Granted, that’s a high standard (that book made my Top Ten that year), but the aforementioned Riordan and his PERCY JACKSON books, while not as strong and having some of their own issues with pacing, still, in the same amount of pages, created a far more felt world of people and places. Not to mention older classics such as Lloyd Alexander’s PRYDAIN series, or any E.B. White or Roald Dahl. So we do a disservice I think to give a pass to books that lack those things by simply shrugging and saying, “Eh, it’s YA/Middle Grade, whaddya want, Ulysses? Absalom, Absalom?”
For that reason, while I’ll give Matt and company a shot in book two (Loki’s Wolves leaves us clearly aimed at the group’s next adventure), my recommendation to young readers or to adults looking for books for young readers is to hold off. Try one of the above books for now, and I’ll let you know if THE BLACKWELL PAGES finds its way next time.
Updated: And it turns out I should have said “if” my son finishes, not “when.” He did give it a strong try, getting 200+ pages in before finally quitting. He had many of the same complaints (to be clear — I never speak to him about complaints until after he’s finished or given up a book so as not to color his reaction): confrontations that were “too easy” or “silly,” “too much talking,” and “it felt very random,” among them. Hmm, so I guess this means my insight into how an 11-year old boy might respond was pretty spot on. I’m not sure this is a good thing (though my wife remains unshocked).