Odd and the Frost Giants, by Neil Gaiman (Harper Collins, 2009, 117 pages) is a gem of a book. It is smaller than average, and instead of a bright dust jacket, it is a plain dark blue, except for the color plate on the cover. It looks special--old and magical, yet friendly. The black and white illustrations, by Brett Helquist, add to the feeling that this might be a book from long ago, but are considerably less scary than the bulk of the fairy tale illustrations I can remember from the old books of my childhood. In short, this is the sort of book that makes you want to pick it up.
Odd and the Frost Giants had not been inside our house for more than a few minutes before my older boy had it in his hands. I didn't let him read it to himself, though-I wanted to read it to him. And for the next few nights, we were enchanted by the story.
In Norway, long ago, a boy named Odd leaves home very early one cold winter morning, when it was supposed to be spring, but wasn't. After his father had died while off being a Viking, a tree had crushed his leg, and his mother had married a man who did not want him. With nothing left to keep him in his village, he sets off to live alone, as best he can, in his father's old woodcutting hut.
There in the snowy woods he meets three animals--a fox, a bear, and an eagle--and learns that they are Norse gods, transformed by the curse of a Frost Giant. The giant has claimed Asgard, the realm of the gods, as his own, and, unless he is driven out, winter will last forever.
The gods (Loki, Thor, and Odin), trapped in their animal forms, think it's all pretty hopeless, but they have nothing to loose, and Odd doesn't either. So when Odd suggests that a visit to Asgard might be in order, off they go, with Odd riding on the bear's back, to find the rainbow bridge that leads away from Midgard, the middle earth where humans live.
And then Odd must face the Frost Giant. He can't outfight the giant, he can't think of a way to trick him, and he doesn't have any special magical powers or talismans. All he has is a carving his father had begun before he died, and his wits...
I am very fond of Odd. He is smart without being smart-aleky, unhappy without ever whining, brave partly because taking action beats doing nothing, and partly because of his delighted self-awareness that he is living a story:
"As the bear sped up, the cold went through Odd's clothes and chilled him to the bone.
The fox dashed ahead of them, the eagle flew above them and Odd thought, crazily, happily, I'm just like one of the brave lords in my mother's ballads. Only without the horse, the dog and the falcon." (page 21)
The gods don't come off as well as Odd does. This should not be a surprise to anyone familiar with Norse mythology, and the bickering back-talk between Thor and Loki is delightfully spot-on (Odin, the rather grumpy and aloof eagle, has much less to say).
My nine year-old loved this book. He knows his Norse mythology pretty well, however, and I wonder how much that contributed to his reaction, in as much as he was able to greet Thor and Loki as old friends. I am pretty sure, however, that Gaiman has created a solid enough enchantment to sustain even young readers meeting these gods for the first time. He doesn't try to fit "An Introduction to the Gods of the Vikings" into his story, but instead trusts his readers to find their own way in, with a minimal amount of overt explanation. As events unfold, some things are made clear, but other stories and mysteries and magics are only hinted at.
In short, this is a lovely book to buy a child, for winter time reading together under the covers or in front of a fire. It is a lovely book to have on one's shelf. It is a lovely book for those who delight in Norse Mythology. It's hard to predict if this will please "Gaiman fans," because his books are all so different from each other, but those who loved The Graveyard Book will, I think, like this one.
And now I am trying to decide in my own mind if Odd, from this book, and Bod, from The Graveyard Book, are pretty much the same boy in different circumstances....they both provoke a similar maternal response in me.
The end note of Odd and the Frost Giants implies that there may be more stories about Odd--I do so hope that is the case. The book was written for World Book Day in the UK--the cover for that edition (which kids could buy for just one pound) is at right.
Here are some other reviews, at Things Mean a Lot, Chasing Ray, and Shelf Elf, and, by way of interesting contrast, reviews by adults for adults at SF Signal and Graeme's Fantasy Book Review.
Odd has been nominated for the Cybils Awards in middle grade science fiction and fantasy, for which I am on the short list committee; the opinions expressed here are entirely my own.