Call it serendipity, if you like. A book was given to me, and a relevant essay appeared elsewhere. And now it is time to ask some questions that have been brewing in me for a long time.
The Lost Sun, by Tessa Gratton (Random House, 2013), is a Young Adult novel built on an interesting slant on Norse myths. In the novel's world, U.S.A. means United States of Asgard, a place in an alternate Midgard much like our U.S.A., where the Heathen gods are corporeal entities that have an everyday presence in the country's political structure. This isn't a theocracy in the usual sense. The Aesir and Vanir are right there. You can see them often on TV, and if you go to the right places at the right times, touch them and talk with them directly. Magic is present, but not on the level of Harry Potter magic. Mostly, it is that runes appear to have some physical power, and the efficacy of seidh (spelled seeth in the novel) is taken for granted and questioned by no one. Also present are trolls in various shapes and sizes, and people have to worry about them, much as we might worry about rabid raccoons. Or worse.
The categories I could toss this book into are clear. I think the Young Adult classification is a publisher's euphemism for "teenage, and probably female." More than one reviewer at Goodreads pegged this story as "insta-love meets dangerous boy," which I gather in my inexperience with this genre means "cliché meets cliché." Uncharitable, but accurate. I'll have more to say about that later. But first let's talk about the aspects of this book that are interesting from a Heathen perspective.
I am amazed, and pleased, that a major label such as Random House would pick up a book like this. Understanding the book fully requires not just some knowledge of Norse myths, but also an understanding of an unusual vocabulary. Heathen readers will run through these words without a second thought, except perhaps for thinking, "Wait a minute... Will Ashley from Mass-Market Suburbia have any idea what that word means?" And such words are all over every page. The author, and the publisher presumably, believe that Ashley will either figure it out, or that she already knows these words. One immediately notices the slightly altered place names, but that isn't what I'm talking about. It is in sentences such as "You don't have to stand before a tyr for that kind of commit," where the lower-case T is important.
When I started performing my Days in Midgard stories, I heard a lot of feedback from listeners along the lines of "I don't think anyone will understand this." Listening further, I got the feeling that in many cases this meant "Well, I understood it, but I don't think anyone else will." One person who did understand told me nevertheless that I greatly overestimated the intelligence of my audience, an accusation I decided to live with. Now, experiencing the same feeling about someone else's story, I hope that I am mistaken, and I'd like to know what the marketplace of readers eventually decides about The Lost Sun.
As with Joanne Harris' Runemarks, another book with an interesting slant on Norse myths, The Lost Sun is not about our world that has managed to become Heathen. This world just is and always has been. What we see is assumed by the narrator to be normal, and we are expected to catch up with that.
In this version of the U.S.A., every city, town, and village is equipped for holmgang, and the use of that equipment is, if not commonplace, not very unusual, either. As a result, one is careful about what one says, and how one says it. One of the things I admired about this book was the effort the author put into understanding the consequences of her world's morality. If she had aimed at a more mature audience, she could have carried this aspect much further.
We occasionally meet "biblist" characters. These are a minority, and seen as odd. Their language implies that Baldur is their One God, but no one quite believes them. One or two other characters show some bigotry toward them, illustrating the concept of Dominant Privilege from a different angle.
The mythical content will raise eyebrows now and then. For example, Fenris is female in this story, spending most of her time in the form of a buxom and horny young woman. She talks about the nature of her constraints and her relationship with Tyr, neither of which follow any traditional understanding. The author has a degree in Gender Studies, so I was not surprised by this kind of legerdemain. What did surprise me was her conflation of Freya and Hela. It might be polite for me to say that I couldn't find any way to make that work for me. It would be more accurate to say that it made me want to throw things. And at least one aspect of the ending will probably give traditional Heathens some heartburn, too.