I was greatly looking forward to Joanne M. Harris’ The Gospel of Loki, being a large fan of Norse mythology, anti-heroes, and subversive retellings of well-told tales. Especially if that retelling is going to be done by one known for his silvery tongue, biting wit, and clever mind. Really, if you’re going to have a first-person subversive anti-hero narrative, who would you pick over Loki as your main character? So admittedly, maybe there is a bit of overly high expectations going on here, but while I found The Gospel of Loki enjoyable enough, it was a somewhat bland kind of enjoyment. The kind that went down easily enough, like say a plate of spaghetti topped with a mild store-brand marinara, but left you wishing for something with a lot more zing — a spicy fra diavolo sharpened with a half-dozen or so cloves of minced garlic. The kind of sauce that perks you up with that first bite and then lingers long after the plates have been put away (and yes, I realize I’m mixing a hot southern Italian metaphor with my icy Northern setting, but we work with what we know here).
The novel opens with a sardonic cast list, letting us know right away we’re not working from the same old same old mythological vantage point. A few examples include:
- Odin — aka One-Eye … Would throw his brother to the wolves (and did) for a percentage
- Thor — The Thunderer. Likes hitting things. Not a fan of Yours Truly.
- Bragi — god of poetry. Two words: expect lutes.
- Mimir — the Wise. Odin’s Uncle. Apparently, not wise enough
And of course Loki: “Your Humble Narrator … the Trickster, the Father of Lies … Not the most popular guy around.”
As you can tell by that description, Loki is well aware he is telling a story, and makes this clear from the very start, explaining how the myths we know are “The Authorized Version … Well, this isn’t the Authorized Version. This is my version of events … [and] it’s at least as true as anything you’d call history … And I happen to know that history is nothing but spin and metaphor, which is what all yarns are made up of when you strip them down.”
What follows will be pretty familiar to anyone who has read the basic Norse myths. We quickly get the early world building: the creation story with Order and Chaos birthing Ymir and Audhumla, the cow that licked from the salt and ice the first man, Buri. The birth and rise of the Aesir and Vanir, their home in Asgard, war and hostility between them and the Ice Folk and Rock Folk. This is briefly interrupted by a nicely original first-person account of how Odin convinced/tricked Loki into leaving his primal home within Chaos and joining Odin and the other gods in Asgard. From there, we hit the major myths, including the creation of Asgard’s magical artifacts (Odin’s spear, Thor’s Mjolnir), Thor and Loki’s visit to Utgard, Thor dressing up as a bride to trick the giants, the death of Baldur, and so on, all leading inevitably to Ragnarok and the fall of the gods.
Here lies one of my first disappointments. If you are familiar with the myths, there is little deviation here, and so a large part of The Gospel of Loki reads like all the other retellings you’ve read before. Sure, it was still fun reading about Loki and Thor’s challenges in Utgard (no spoilers here for those who don’t know the tale), but I’ve lost track of how many retellings of that particular story I’ve read since fourth or fifth grade and nothing here made this version stand out amongst all those others. The same held true for every adventure recounted here, pretty much all of which I’ve read before. Granted, if you haven’t steeped yourself in Norse mythology (and I’ll let you do that calculation of just how “steeped” you are on your own), then you’re likely to enjoy these Loki’s stories more than I did.
That said, there remains a bland feel to them beyond their familiarity. Descriptions of the worlds are pretty barebones, with only Asgard really getting any sense of concrete reality, and even that is minimal. There’s such rich potential in the Nine Worlds, not to mention creations such as the Bifrost Bridge, the World Tree, etc. but that potential is never mined. I understand part of that comes the perspective and voicing of Loki, who is not going to wax lyrical, but the some precision and detail, even if not particularly rich or poetic, would have gone a long way. As it stands, the lack of description combined with the episodic nature of the novel and its inherent sense of timelessness makes the whole thing feel like an unfinished backlot set.
The same holds true for the characters beyond Loki, none of whom come alive at all save perhaps Odin, and he does so only in flashes. Otherwise the gods are barely given more detail or personality than we get in that character list that opens the book and never offer up any sense of lived complexity beyond Loki’s relatively juvenile scornful epithets. As mentioned, the singular exception is Odin, whom Loki makes clear is just as ruthless and amoral a con man as Loki. In other words, if Loki is the Father of Lies, then, he implies, Odin is the Grandfather of Deception. This makes Odin the only interesting character in the book beyond Loki himself, but again, one wishes more had been done with this.
As for Loki himself, I had a mixed reaction. On the one hand, the voice can be charming, easy to get caught up in, breezy and bitingly wry. On the other hand, just as often, the vocabulary is gratingly modern (as when he makes a proposal beginning with “For a limited time only …”), the humor overly juvenile (scrotum jokes), and the breeziness and consistently poor view of everyone (perhaps especially women) can be wearisome. Again, one felt there was potential here, and every now and then we see glimpses of what could have in those few times where Loki dips below the surface and grows momentarily introspective about his place (or lack thereof) in Asgard, or over his role as husband or father or, at the end, bringer of doom and destruction. But as with the other cases, the potential is never or too rarely fully realized. To be honest, I’d say Tom Hiddleston brings more depth to the character of Loki in two minutes on film, even if he isn’t speaking.
The Gospel of Loki isn’t a “bad” novel by any stretch, and as mentioned, those who come to it wholly unfamiliar with the Norse myths will find more to enjoy (though Harris can’t claim a lot of credit for that aspect). But its bland execution across a range of elements — character, setting, style, language, freshness —makes it a sadly disappointing book.