Rick Riordan, who has enthralled millions of readers with exciting tales of teenagers and their interactions with Greek, Roman and Egyptian gods and goddesses, turns to Norse mythology in his latest book, The Sword of Summer, published October 6, 2015.
Magnus Chase is sixteen years old and has been homeless for two years, since his mother died. Magnus remembers the door of their apartment splintering and wolves with glowing blue eyes bursting in as his mother shooed him out the fire escape. His mother had always told him to avoid his uncles, especially Uncle Randolph ― but Magnus runs into Randolph, who somehow convinces him to accompany him to retrieve an ancient sword from the waters below Longfellow Bridge in Boston. Magnus magically calls the sword to himself. Unfortunately, it’s a corroded, slimy, barnacle-encrusted piece of metal with no hilt. Worse, a fireball-wielding man promptly appears and demands, while incinerating various items on the bridge, that Magnus give him the sword.
It’s not entirely surprising that Magnus dies in their confrontation ― particularly since Magnus announces on the first page that he dies. It’s a little more surprising when Magnus regains consciousness on the doorstep of the luxurious Hotel Valhalla, where the einherjar (heroes who have died in battle) live until Ragnarok, the final great battle at the end of the world. In Hotel Valhalla, the minibar is always stocked, the gigantic Tree of Laeadr grows in the dining hall, and einherjar gleefully die glorious, bloody deaths in daily battles, from which they are promptly resurrected. The display board in the hotel lobby informs Magnus of each day’s activities:
SINGLE COMBAT TO THE DEATH! – OSLO ROOM, 10 A.M.
GROUP COMBAT TO THE DEATH! – STOCKHOLM ROOM, 11 A.M.
BUFFET LUNCH TO THE DEATH! – DINING HALL, 12 P.M.
BIKRAM YOGA TO THE DEATH! – COPENHAGEN ROOM, BRING YOUR OWN MAT, 4 P.M.
Predictably, Magnus’ fate is not to simply rest, or rather fight, in Valhalla. He is soon off on a quest, encouraged by some gods, hunted by others who are trying to capture or kill him, and assisted by a charmingly diverse group of friends, including his former Valkyrie Samirah, a hijab-wearing Muslim human girl with some extraordinary powers; Blitzen, a dwarf whose creativity runs to fashion design; and Hearthstone, a deaf elf with a hard-won magical talent and family issues.
Riordan skillfully weaves together a rousing adventure, constant humor, and interesting bits of Norse mythology, some more familiar than others. Characters such as Surt, Frey and Fenris Wolf, and legendary items such as Gleipnir (the chain that binds Fenris) and Naglfar, the Ship of Nails, were new to me, but have their roots in Norse mythology. Familiar Asgard gods such as Thor, Loki and Odin also show up in the pages of The Sword of Summer, though these characters’ appearance and personalities may raise the eyebrows of readers who are primarily familiar with their Marvel counterparts. There are a few sly references to Riordan’s prior series, such as cameo appearances by Annabeth (who will be familiar to Percy Jackson fans), that tie this new series into the same universe as PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS.
Although The Sword of Summer is overall a light-hearted adventure tale, it incorporates the violence that was part of the Viking culture. It also deals with the issue of homelessness in a way that’s not too heavy, but doesn’t sidestep the problems and troubles of those who are homeless, such as their inability to keep themselves and their clothing clean, their invisibility to members of society, and the suspiciousness that often becomes part of a homeless person’s personality.
You’re not going to get anything startlingly new or deeply profound with The Sword of Summer; it’s in the same vein as his prior middle grade books, the literary equivalent of Variations on a Theme. Magnus’ personality is pretty much interchangeable with Percy’s. But it’s an entertaining novel with plenty of action and laugh out loud humor. Quirky chapter titles like “Make Way for Ducklings, or They Will Smack You Upside the Head” and “Come to the Dark Side. We Have Pop-Tarts” made me chuckle, as did Odin’s transformation (thanks to a week-long seminar) into a cheesy motivational speaker. On a more personal note, my own children’s enthusiasm for both reading and mythology took a big turn upwards with Rick Riordan’s books, and I’ll always be grateful for that. My thirteen year old son Tyler couldn’t even wait for me to finish writing this review to swipe the book away from me.
Fans of the PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS series will be more than satisfied with The Sword of Summer, which is the first book in a projected trilogy called MAGNUS CHASE AND THE GODS OF ASGARD. Tyler and I will both be anxiously awaiting the next installment in this series.
If you like Rick Riordan’s PERCY JACKSON books (or any of his other series, honestly), you’re guaranteed to enjoy The Sword of Summer, especially since Magnus Chase’s storytelling style has more than its fair share of snark. (I read so many fantastic, laugh-out-loud lines aloud to my partner that I ended up having to start from the beginning and read the entire thing aloud so that he could have context for the craziness.)
I’m more familiar with the Norse myths than the Greek, so various revelations and character actions weren’t much of a surprise to me, though I agree with Tadiana that they will be a bit of a shock for readers who are only familiar with their portrayal in the Marvel Comics or Cinematic Universe. The frustrating natures of the Norse Gods are also true to form; it doesn’t surprise me that Davy Crockett would be a member of their honored dead, despite his belief that Texas should be an independent nation (thereby allowing landowners to also own slaves). The Norse myths glorified prowess in battle, and while there are a few notable heroines and goddesses among the endless ranks of heroes and gods, those same myths are also heavy on class divisions and racism.
Riordan does an excellent job of bringing modern sensibilities to ancient traditions, though, and reading his books never feels like reading a “diversity checklist”; he simply populates his books with people who live in the real world, like Deaf people or homeless teens or Muslim girls or sartorially-inspired young men. For all the fantastical elements unseen to normal mortals, there’s a heavy dose of realism, too. I’d like to hope that younger readers might come away from The Sword of Summer with a better appreciation for their own lives and perhaps a desire to connect with people who have different experiences.