The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris
Loki, that’s me.
Loki, the Light-bringer, the misunderstood. The elusive, the handsome and modest hero of this particular tissue of lies.
Take it with a pinch of salt, but it’s at least as true as the official version, and, dare I say it, more entertaining. So far, history, such as it is, has cast me in a rather unflattering role.
Now it’s my turn to take the stage.
When it comes to a good yarn there is little more entertaining when there is a platinum rogue at the heart of it all. There is nothing better than that moment when you discover that most elusive of creations, the literary scoundrel. You know what I mean, one of those rare characters that by rights you should hate, but you can’t help but love. When it comes to reprobates Loki, the trickster god, is the grand-daddy of them all. Mad, bad and just a little bit dangerous to know. He’s the poster child for the self-absorbed. In fact, that doesn’t even come close to describing Loki’s attitude to, well, just about everything honestly.
Harris casts her version of Loki as not only the main protagonist, but also the narrator of his own story. It means the reader gets to know exactly what’s motivating his actions and learn exactly why he makes the choices he chooses to make. I love that the plot is peppered with many of Loki’s snide little asides; he just can’t help but pass comment. He has an opinion on everything and he’s happy to share. Most of the time, Loki feels horribly wronged by the other gods and goddesses, but that’s usually because in some respect it is deserved. In fairness though, Loki is always true to himself, he never apologises for being what he is. Loki is the godlike embodiment of elemental Chaos, he’s the absolute antithesis of order and control. He does things just because he can and really doesn’t massively care about the consequences, or so it appears at first.
Over the last few years I’ve seen a number of different interpretations of the character on screen. From Tom Hiddleston in the Marvel movies to Shane Cortese in The Almighty Johnsons. Loki always comes across as a bit of charmer using his silver tongue as a weapon in its own right. I was curious to see how a literary equivalent may differ, but to be honest he’s not massively changed. Its true underlying motivations may be slightly different but if anything Harris has taken the elements that many will already be familiar with and enhanced them to the nth degree. Loki knows he isn’t ever going to be the strongest, or even the cleverest for that matter. Where he does excel is in wielding his own animal cunning with flair.
It’s not just your humble narrator who Harris spends time exploring. The other various deities of the Norse pantheon are also wonderfully realised. The lords and ladies of Asgard mange at first glance to be veritable paragons of their godly aspects but it’s not long before their more human flaws become evident.
Odin is consumed with a profound desire for unending knowledge and power, and this makes him often appear withdrawn and aloof. Thor is all blustering violence and the need to hit things with his magic hammer, Mjölnir. Harris injects some subtle humor here and the whole Thor/Mjölnir thing does offer one of the best running gags that appear in the book. As for Heimdall, don’t even get me started, let’s just say he and Loki don’t get on at all. The ladies of Asgard fair little better. Frigg ignores Odin’s many flaw and his infidelities. Freya is vain and manipulative, and Sif is as violent as her husband Thor.
Loki’s monstrous offspring aren’t exactly a happy bunch either. Hel, Fenris and Jormungand all have their own versions of “daddy issues” bring a whole new meaning to the phrase “dysfunctional family”.
The Gospel of Loki is an intriguing mash up of genres and the writing is executed flawlessly. Part ancient myth, part fantasy, part character study and part soap opera all blended together. As his gospel unfolds further, you discover that there is part of Loki that really does care. If the other denizens of Asgard treated him a bit better, perhaps show him a little respect occasionally, then there is every chance that he would have treated them all better in return.
One of my favourite things about this book is the way that Joanne Harris plays with language to tell Loki’s story. There are a handful of popular phrases that she cleverly reinterprets to suggest they come directly from Loki’s legend. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling any of these little gems, but do keep an eye out for them, they’re great fun when you spot them.
From his humble beginnings through his ascendancy to godhood, and right on to Ragnarok and the end of days, this book covers the colourful career of a being that really should know better, but quite frankly chooses not to. Joanne Harris has reinvented the myth, the legend that is Loki. She’s managed to make him heart wrenchingly sad one moment and laugh out loud funny the next. This is an impressive novel that I’d heartily recommend to anyone.
The Gospel of Loki is published by Gollancz and is available now.