Monday, 25 July 2011

REVIEW: Skaldenland by James Mortimore

“Physics with extra romance.” 

That’s a phrase used by a character in Skaldenland to describe music, but it’s a pretty good summation of the whole story. James Mortimore, the author previously known as Jim Mortimore and known best for his Doctor Who novels, has created an original work that draws heavily on Norse mythology, but also touches on esoteric physics and astrophysics, along with the power of words and music, to create an epic picture of the end of the world. It’s a departure for publishers Obverse Books, whose previous publications have been anthologies of short stories and novellas, and is hopefully only the first of many.

For all its epic ambitions, Skaldenland starts small, with young siblings Brun and Chad on holiday in the country. Brun is an aspiring author; younger Chad is conscious that he lacks any particular talents. Both are, however, possessed of the most incredible turn of phrase. They’re a likeable pair, particularly Chad, the protagonist, but you have to be able to accept these two kids talking to each other in Shakespeare quotes, snatches of poetry and distinctly old-fashioned aphorisms. Chad comes out with phrases like “Her words are to fiction as fiction is to fact. Additional strata, extra space for the meaning to unfold into.” But then, he also says things like “Cool bananas!” so it’s not all grand wordplay. Still, the dialogue and prose style together lend the novel a poetic feel.

Two elements come together to change Chad and Brun’s world. Brun is writing a story based on Norse mythology, the heroine a woman called Freya. Then, one night, Chad and Brun acquire a Symphonium - an archaic music box - from a junkshop. In terrible shape when they take it home, the Symphonium is soon restoring its glamour, and playing music without disks. Bells ring in the family’s ears, and the weather starts to alter. It begins with light snowfalls and the plumbing freezing up, but eventually, summer turns to winter.

The novel takes a while to hit its stride, dragging a little for the first half. Yet this is necessary; Chad’s life needs to be developed so we can appreciate what he is going to lose. I’m a big fan of ancient mythology, and the Norse pantheon is one of the richest. There’s a real feel of mythic importance as the various characters begin to take on aspects of figures from the myths. The most enjoyable characters are Ellyn, a disturbed young woman who becomes Chad’s love interest, and Mrs C, the eccentric old woman across the from his holiday home. Both are sources of arcane and mystical knowledge that spans time and space. As the world freezes over and the past breaks through to the present, Chad experiences visions of an ancient war spanning the universe. He is plagued by terrifying forces; grey-faced men, moving scarecrows, shadowy wolves - proper fairy tale horrors. The ice-clad world is full of chills. Reading it, we’re never quite sure what experiences are real and which are dreams, until it’s too late for Chad, and all have taken their places for Ragnarok.

While it took a little time to truly get into the story, I ultimately found Skaldenland a satisfyingly mythic experience.

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