The Sleeping Army, by Fancesca Simon (2011 in the UK), and read the blurb, I added it to my wish list:
"Freya is an ordinary girl living in modern Britain, but with a twist: people
still worship the Viking gods. One evening, stuck with her dad on his night
shift at the British Museum, she is drawn to the Lewis Chessmen and Heimdall's
Horn. Unable to resist, she blows the horn, waking three chess pieces from their
enchantment; the slaves Roskva and Alfi, and Snot the Berserk. They are all
summoned to Asgard, land of the Viking gods, and told they must go on a perilous
journey to restore the gods to youth.If Freya refuses she will be turned into an
ivory chess piece but, if she accepts her destiny and fails, the same terrible
fate awaits her. Brilliantly funny, original and a wholly new take on the Norse myths - and the
travails of contemporary family life."
And I was very happy to get it for Christmas, and happy to start reading it last night...except that perhaps my expectations were too high.
I loved the set-up, with its premise that Christianity was simply a minor Roman cult, and the chessmen coming to life, and the journey to Asgard...and though Freya did not embrace her magical adventure with any enthusiasm, I was willing to make allowances. It is true, after all, that the Norse gods and goddesses are never very pleasant, especially when they are, as is the case here, suffering from senile dementia, and no-one in their right mind would want to go traipsing off on a perilous mission to Jotunheim in the middle of winter. And it is true that Snot the Berserker is smelly and strange, and although Alfi is pleasant enough, his sister Roskva makes it clear that she thinks Freya is useless...and it's true that riding through winter on Sleipnir, Odin's eight-legged horse, would probably be uncomfortable, so there's nothing for Freya to be all that cheerful about in terms of companionship and creature-comforts...
So I made allowances, with the expectation that at some point Freya would step up to the plate and show usefulness, spirit, spunk....something more than just being a bit stoical about wet socks...but still on page 171 of 221, there's "I can't do this!" wailed Freya. "Any of this!" and although I saw little reason to argue with her, it sure made it hard to be deeply engaged in her story. Maybe I have been brainwashed into thinking that a sense of wonder, excitement, and daring-do is required of fantasy heroines, and I am just to set in my ways to appreciate a (quite-possibly more realistic) deviation from this norm.
But in any event, the story manages to go on with little help from Freya, or the Norse gods, and in the end Freya makes a new friend with the help of her lip gloss and does what she has to do.
The story was interesting, and even amusing, and I quite liked Alfi and Roskva, and even Snot grew on me, and this was certainly the most interesting fictional Hel (as in Loki's daughter) I've ever met, and so I don't want to make it seem as though the book was a huge disappointment to me. It was just Freya who was disappointing.
(Also I think it is misleading to suggest, as the blurb does, that the reader is going to get "travails of contemporary family life. Freya's parents are divorced and there are concomitant issues that take up maybe two pages in total and the rest of the book is all mythological questing).
All my reservations aside, I want to read the sequel, The Lost Gods (Sept. 2013 in the UK); I do like the conceit of a Norse England.
"In The Sleeping Army, Freya went to Hel and back. She fought dragons,
fled fire and outwitted giants - all to restore eternal youth to the Norse Gods.
But now they're back, does anyone care?
Up in Asgard, it doesn't really feel like it. The Gods' popularity on earth
is waning, and without regular worship, their powers are fading fast. Meanwhile,
their ancient enemies, the Frost Giants, are stirring. So the Gods hatch a plan
- they'll come back down to earth, and they'll pursue a very different kind of
popularity. They're going to become celebrities. A rollicking, thrilling and
hilarious ride, The Lost Gods takes up where the Sleeping Army
left off and takes us back to Simon's brilliantly-imagined modern Norse England."