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by Joanne Harris

Runemarks by Joanne Harris X
Runemarks by Joanne Harris
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2008, 544 pages
    Oct 2009, 544 pages

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Young at Heart?
One of the enduring paradigms in publishing is the categorization of a book to focus publicity and marketing efforts and give booksellers a clear spot to shelve it. What is frustrating about this inevitable classification is that often a book goes undiscovered by an audience that would most certainly appreciate it. While many titles cross over genre and age lines (Harry Potter, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series come to mind), many more great books never get the recognition and larger readership they deserve. Never is this dilemma more evident then when a usually "adult" writer pens a book specifically written for children, or vice-versa. Far from seeking out a children's title written by a favorite author, readers seem to think that that the book is not intended for them.

Novelist of Chocolat fame, Joanne Harris is a fine storyteller. Runemarks, published this year by Knopf, is her first novel for kids; some passages may be too disturbing for very young children, but what makes this novel special and appealing to readers young and old is its retelling of classic Norse tales, its gifted prose and captivating dialogue. Not to mention it's a fantasy novel that concludes in one volume!

Maddy Smith is born with a "ruinmark," the ancient marking of special magical powers, but has been ostracized and despised by her local townsfolk, who suspect she is a witch. The setting is five hundred years after Ragnarók, the mythical last battle when all the Norse gods were defeated and imagination and magic are outlawed. Maddy has no idea how much she is capable of or how to utilize her strange secret powers, until she meets a teacher -- a mysterious traveler called One-Eye -- who begins to help her unlock her destiny. In unleashing her magical skills, Maddy prepares herself to fight evil forces brewing in the Nine Worlds.

What may seem like a clichéd storyline is told beautifully in the hands of this talented writer. Harris's descriptive powers are in full force, as evidenced in passages like this:

"Her place was a giant copper beech, with a thick, smooth bole and plenty of branches. Thirty feet up, there was a fork into which Maddy liked to sprawl, skirts hiked up, legs on either side of the trunk, watching the village through the circle of her left thumb and forefinger."

And Harris's dialogue reveals her background as a modern and medieval language scholar as well as her flair for comedy.

With the novel's use of magic and runes, Runemarks may seem like a romp through a Renaissance faire, but you will easily be lost to any other task but reading this wonderful book. Runemarks deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone ages ten and up...all the way up.

Good at the end, okay overall, but not worth the time
The book was exceedingly slow up until the very peak of the climax, very near the conclusion. After all the buildup and back story, I felt disappointed that there wasn't much meat after all the hype.

The majority of the book deals with a journey leading up to a reveal of a major deception, stemming from an unexpected traitor. The buildup is slow, hundreds of pages until you even know what the whole endeavor is leading to (treachery), and still you have to wait before you really understand why it's even worth it (why did the traitor even bother? a grudge, but not one that the reader can sympathize with). I felt relieved that it was worth it at all, once I finally knew why the characters went through all the trouble, but disappointed that it was so shallow.

Now, every time I find a list of the characters names at the FRONT of the book, I doubt the writer's skill a little bit more than normal. Because, if you can write well enough that I remember who the main characters are and what they're like, and I can just manage to keep up with the secondary/tertiary characters, why do you need to remind me, or give me a reference? It should never be necessary. Perhaps at the back of the book, in an appendix, you can give me a relationship chart or a more in-depth bio of the secondary/tertiary characters, so if I want to know more while/after I read, I can. But if it's in the front, I expect I'm definitely going to need to read it first. And that doesn't reassure me that your writing is good, that I need help to just remember that Joe(secondary) doesn't like Bob(main) and that Bob is the main character of the book. No, that doesn't reassure me at ALL. But I give the writer some slack, just in case their writing is good...

In this case, I regret it. I found myself CONSTANTLY flipping to the front of the book, to look at THREE reference pages for the runes and characters (people). Now, sure, most of the time the text described what [the most important] runes they were casting were supposed to do, but then a lot of the time just the name of the rune was mentioned, leaving me wondering, 'what are they really doing' because I only had a vague feeling for what they were casting. As for the characters, even though given literally all the time in the world to be developed, I constantly had to look up who was who. For lack of remembering the difference between the multiple names, of which a majority started with the same letter, even. I could only keep track of the main five characters halfway through the book. HALFWAY. Not to mention the first 150 pages, where I could only keep track of two. I've seen books half this length keep up with more characters without losing me, but this one can't even let me keep up with all of the main characters, not to mention the secondary characters. Of course half the characters have at least THREE different names, some a full page of names, and that makes it even more confusing...[by the way Bob, every time I flip to the front of the book, the action stops. yeah. that really makes the story flow well.]

Now that I've flipped back to the front of this book uncounted many times (somewhere in the 30s-40s) I finally make it to the climax, a mere 100ish pages from the end, and I begin to have doubts that the buildup isn't worth it. Seeing as I spent over 300++++ pages to finally remember everyone hates Loki except Loki himself (and sometimes two others), the names of two groups of 'gods' (a lot of names and abilities, one person you only learn so that the main character can fly somewhere once or twice.), and that magic rocks can talk, I really wonder, can any event really merit me remembering more than half a dozen characters through rote memorization?

The answer is NO, by the way.

I should never have to flip through inches of paper to the front of a book purely to confirm that yes, the person talking hates Loki.

I should never have to go to the front of the book to remember, yes, that rune binds things.

The ending was satisfying, if only to affirm that there was a point to running across a map. The whole island. But it wasn't worth memorizing by brute force a full two pages of names and relationships.

It's like spending two hours prepping ingredients to get a main dish that tastes as good as canned soup. Sure, it tasted okay. Yes, it did fill you up 'right.' But was it worth a sore back and feet from standing for two hours? NO. You should have just told me to open a can, upend it, and stick it in a microwave.

[Short and sweet: the ending was satisfying, but the time spent to get to it was too large given the satisfaction it delivered.]

I do admit, I am more interested in Norse mythology, but only because I want to see the well fleshed out characters do something worthwhile succinctly. This book was waaaaay too drawn out, and I don't see any simple way to condense it properly.

Rating (this book requires a split in parts):
first 300+ pgs 2.3 (poor - average)
ending 4.5 (good - very good)

I'd say, if you want a primer in Norse gods, there are better books written to be just that. If you want a good story/bedtime story there are better books for that too.

This book is purely a time-wasting book for when you have nothing better to read. It's a trash talk show on at noon. You simply shouldn't read it if you've got something better to do in the middle of the day.
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