Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Microreview [book]: Loki by Mike Vasich

Vasich, Mike. Loki [CreateSpace/Amazon Digital, 2011]
Buy: Kindle; Print

I'm usually pretty wary of self-published books, for all the reasons Dean outlined in his April column. There's so much out there, so few ways to tell the good from the bad and the ugly and so little time to devote to reading books. Inevitably, I want filters, and that's what you get from traditional publishing--multiple individuals who have read the work in question and decided it's worth spending money on. It might still end up being crap, but the risk is managed.

That said, there are actually some very good self-published books out there. I reviewed two of them in the past year: Ian Sales' Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself. That was by design--I know Ian from online interaction over a lengthy-ish period, know how he thinks about SF (and that he does think about it) and had already heard good things from reputable sources. So reading those books represented, at most, a calculated risk.

I came upon Mike Vasich's Loki in a wholly different way: I saw it on Amazon, was drawn in by the excellent cover art, lingered for the interesting topic and then bought it because, well, it sounded intriguing. And it was so convincingly intriguing-sounding that I just assumed it was traditionally published. I had no idea it was self-published until much later, when I was telling my cousin about the book and he asked who published it.

But being self-published wasn't the only reason I might have had to dismiss Loki. After all, it is about Vikings--or, more accurately, the religion and mythology of pre-Christian Scandinavia. See, I've read nearly all of the Icelandic sagas, and know quite a bit about Viking history and culture. As a consequence, I find it very difficult to enjoy depictions of them in popular art, since you can basically count historically accurate and culturally-sensitive depictions of Vikings on one hand. Sorry History Channel, but claiming the raid on Lindisfarne was the first time Scandinavians realized people lived to the West of them and misrepresenting the nature of authority in pre-Christian Scandinavia are deal-breakers for me. So how, exactly, was I going to enjoy a self-published retelling of cherished Scandinavian myths by some random American?

As it happens, it wasn't very difficult at all to enjoy, because Loki is really fucking good. The book appears, at first, to be one of those "let's tell a story from another character's perspective," like Grendel or the Gregory Macguire books. In this case, to tell the myth of Ragnarok from the perspective of its antagonist, Loki, and in the process, transform him from villain into antihero. While there are chapters from Loki's perspective, and they are broadly sympathetic, that's not quite what the book sets out to do. Rather, it's a modern retelling of Ragnarok from the perspectives of four gods and one monster: Loki, Tyr, Freya, Odin and Loki's wolf-child, Fenrir.

Ragnarok, for those who do not know, is an end-of-the-world myth, a cataclysmic battle of gods, giants and monsters that will destroy all creation and cause its rebirth into something purer. The myth was a cultural touchstone for the Vikings, who believed in fatalism above all else, and what could be more fatalistic than an end to everything known and knowable, even the gods?

Vasich clearly knows the source material, and the retelling manages to feel simultaneously like a departure from that source material and faithful to it at the same time. The Odin chapters are a particular strength--Vasich portrays the King of the Aesir as a man tormented by knowledge, one who knows the future and, as such, can no longer distinguish it from the present or past, producing acute moments of confusion and panic. He is a tragic figure, burdened with truths beyond the comprehension of mortals and gods alike, and for whom there can be no escape.

 I also appreciate the connections Vasich draws between the Norse cosmology and modern theoretical physics. The nine worlds of creation are linked by Yggdrasil, the tree of life, which in Loki is a sort of permeable superstring linking the dimensional worlds of Asgard, Vangard, Midgard, Jotunheim, Muispellsheim, etc. It's subtle enough to make me wonder if I'm not reading too much into things, but I'm pretty sure it's intentional.

There are, of course, some weaknesses to the book. While the prose is generally good, there are times when it ventures into the dark realm of infodumping, most notably in the Loki chapters. And the actual battle of Ragnarok kinda sorta happens too quickly, kind of like if Star Wars had just cut from the first shot of Yavin 4 to Luke dropping the photon torpedo into the Death Star. But these are small concerns, because Loki is, on balance, a very good book that anyone interested in Norse mythology will appreciate. It's also proof positive that self-published books can be every bit as good as traditionally published ones.

The Math

Baseline assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for the portrayal of Odin, which manages to be simultaneously faithful to the source material and go beyond it; +1 for managing to modernize Norse mythology without alienating this cranky old Viking-lover.

Penalties: -1 for some annoying infodumping.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. "Well worth your time and attention."