Author: Joanne Harris
Year Published: 2007
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Marked by a rune on her hand, Maddy Smith has been shunned by the villagers of Malbry for all her life. As a child, she finds a friend in the traveller One-Eye, an Outlander who teaches her to use magic – a dangerous art connected to the old gods and condemned by the Order. Now One-Eye asks fourteen-year-old Maddy a favour: to go into World Below and retrieve a mysterious object. Little does Maddy know that there are others after it too, and so her great adventure begins. The plot is very intricate and to reveal more would be to spoil it.
Set five hundred years after the End of the World, the novel draws heavily from Norse mythology (though whether it's a fresh take or a bastardisation of the source material depends on your tastes). In fact, so much of the mythology is appropriated that it can be difficult to follow, hence the included maps and list of characters. I myself found it a bit overwhelming, despite having some familiarity with the tales (translation: the main thing I remember is that Loki once turned into a lady-horse and did it with a man-horse and then gave birth to Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse – but this particular story isn't included in Runemarks). The narrative often seems to progress rather slowly, mired by the history of its setting. It's worth getting through though as the book only gets better the further you read.
The world and magic system are interesting and the characters work well as an ensemble, but what you'd really read this book for is the plot. There are many different characters with many different motivations and it was interesting to see how their plot-lines intertwined with one another. Best of all is the adventure. There is always something happening and new places to be explored. The journey to a certain place (near the end of the book) was particularly gripping, taking a darker turn than I had anticipated. Though it's an epic tale that fits in one book, not everything is completely tied up and there is a sequel, Runelight.
Though I was distracted by the abundance of semicolons early on, the writing itself is generally smooth and easy to read. I found that I wasn't particularly invested in the (early mentioned) history of the world to begin with, since it was quite dense and since I didn't quite care for anything or anyone yet. On this note, the shortness of the chapters was a real help to me in getting me through the history-heavy parts, making them seem less daunting. Another problem I had was in the frequent shifts in point of view (which itself was occasionally omniscient but mostly read like third person limited) – shifts which sometimes happened between paragraphs. There were two or three times I wasn't sure whose head I was in, and these moments took me out of the story and were jarring enough to leave an impression. This problem also disappeared as I got near the end.
Runemarks is a good YA fantasy, especially for those who want something epic in scope but one book in length. It was hard for me to get into at first, but I was glad I kept reading. While the world-building elements can be quite heavy-handed at times, these elements are woven into the story and the book certainly delivers on the adventure front. The way the plot wraps up is also very satisfying.
Alex's Rating: 3.5/5