Norse gods dressed like surfers trade expletive-laced quips, and a valkyrie who went to business school serves up swordy death in Greg van Eekhout's Norse Code (Bantam Spectra), a Die Hard-style romp through Viking mythology.
Released earlier this summer, Norse Code has gotten some rave reviews. And it definitely doesn't scrimp on crowd-pleasing battles and showdowns.
The Norse armageddon known as Ragnarok is creeping up on Earth – already, the planet has suffered through three years of winter. That's why shady entrepreneur/goddess Ragrid is building up an army of valkyries to fight on the side of right in the battle that's to come. Ragrid runs the NorseCODE genomics project in Boston, allegedly for the purposes of research, but in fact designed to locate people who are the direct descendants of Odin. Now NorseCODE employs murdered business student Kathy, who found herself yanked off the road to Helheim and pressed into service as the valkyrie Mist ("It sounds like stripper name," she notes sourly).
Mist's job is to locate and kill Odin's genetic kin, turning them into Einherjar, soldiers in the war to stop the bad guys behind Ragnarok. Except possibly the good guys aren't who you think they are. And maybe Mist wants to do other things with her undead valkyrie time than serve the interests of a biotech shill with supernatural powers.
Early in the novel, Mist decides to deviate from her boss' plan. Instead of killing potential Einherjar, she goes to Helheim to rescue her sister, murdered in the same attack she was killed in. Along for the ride is her Einherjar protector Grimnir, a homeless god from Los Angeles called Hermod, and a cute dog called Winston. As they wander deeper into the territory of Norse mythology, van Eekhout is clearly having fun with smashing together the contemporary world with Scandinavian lore. We meet a sybil in a baseball cap, and the road to Hel is literally lined with strip malls.
Eventually our heroes discover that Ragnarok has been jump-started too early by a group of conspirators – but who are they? And why would they possibly want to destroy Earth, along with every other world connected to it? The blend of corporate conspiracy tale with myth has already invited apt comparisons between van Eekhout's work and Neil Gaiman's.
While Norse Code succeeds as a fantasy-adventure, I think it ultimately fails to do what Gaiman has done masterfully in so many novels: Give us myth and reality in equally compelling doses. It often feels like van Eekhout is trying so hard to sandwich all his Norse mythology into the book that he loses sight of the contemporary plot developments that make his novel so original.
After the first chapter or so, for example, we never return to the intrigue of the NorseCODE genomics project, surely one of the most intriguing corporate entities I've encountered in the genre. I love the idea of a Boston biotech company which is secretly combing the human genome for traces of godliness. And Mist and her sister Lilly's previous human lives – as a business student and radical political activist respectively - become running gags that never really go anywhere.
Still there are enough mega-battles with armies of the undead (one memorably in a Costco parking lot), magical swords, and weird gods to please anyone in this novel. It's the sort of book that deserves to become a sweet summer movie. Especially if you are a fan of mythology, Norse Code will feel like an awesome rock show - even if it never goes much beyond that.
Read the first chapter of Norse Code at Tor.com.