REVIEWS: Runemarks; Runelight, Joanne Harris

Doubleday, 2007

A copy of Runemarks lies on grass
Runemarks, Joanne Harris, Black Swan, 2012, paperback

At first glance, Runemarks, the first book in what author Joanne Harris has stated she intends to become her Rune series, seems a departure from Harris’ norm. Despite her impressive back catalogue (twelve books before Runemarks’ original publication in 2007) this is her first fantasy novel*. However as I read, I discovered familiar notes popping up everywhere.

Firstly, it’s set primarily on familiar ground. Malbry – the fictional Yorkshire village that featured in Harris’ previous books Blueeyedboy and Gentlemen and Players – appears as the hometown of Maddy Smith, Runemarks’ thirteen year old protagonist; albeit significantly changed. The book is set in an alternate England apparently founded upon lines more Norse than Roman, and five hundred years after Ragnarok, to boot.

Another recognisable element is the dichotomy at the heart of the novel: the religiously fundamentalist population are closed-minded, stifling and cruel, while Maddy is an effective outcast due to her wilfulness and imagination.

Harris presents both sides as dangerous in their own ways. While the force of dream is in fact exactly as chaotic and dangerous as the villagers fear, the will to conformity is equally potent, spurring characters on to monstrous fundamentalist cruelty.

If the book suffers, it’s from a wavering tone. From the first the style is reminiscent of Pratchett or Gaiman, but between the depth of description and the sometimes shallow portrait of the characters, it’s difficult to know exactly whether this book is aimed at children or adults. When I read on Harris’ website that the book came into being as a bedtime story told to her daughter, things became clearer.

As a stand-alone novel, Runemarks is an entertaining fantasy read with an oft-bemusing tone. Its theme of alienation and imagination, relatable to many a fantasy fan, and its fun portrayal of the Norse pantheon make it a winner. With the sequel, Runelight, and the promise of further books, Runemarks is elevated to the beginning of a promising series.

Doubleday, 2011

A copy of Runelight lies on grass
Runelight, Joanne Harris, Black Swan, 2012, paperback

Opening three years after the events of Runemarks, Runelight follows not only heroine Maddy Smith and unlucky Loki, but also Maddy’s twin, the existence of whom was revealed at the end of Runemarks. Maddy Rede – whose surname should be familiar to returning readers – gives us a welcome view of the capital of Harris’ alternate England, World’s End, home of the erstwhile Order, where the action of this book centres.

If Runemarks was somewhat of a shaky start to the Rune series, Runelight is where the style and writing come into their own. No longer veering between pastiche and serious myth, Runelight settles into a comfortable voice suitable for all ages. Further, characters from unimaginative Malbry are returned to and fleshed out satisfyingly, without bogging down the story. The theme of Runemarks – the power of dreaming – is continued with a vengeance here, woven into the beginning with the escape of ephemera from the river of Dream and subtly crescendoing throughout the novel until the climax.

Between Harris’ entertaining narrative style and the twisty, turny plot arcs you somehow don’t see coming (despite being based in ancient myth), Runelight is hard to put down. This goes double for the tense, action-packed finale, which, if a little grandiose at times, stays heartachingly true to the theme of the book (even tear-jerkingly so, for this blogger) whilst being a white-knuckled page turner.

Ultimately the charm of the budding Rune series remains firmly in its characters. Harris moulds the difficult and even sometimes incoherent personalities of the Norse gods à la traditional myth into characters I quickly found myself thinking of as old friends, each well drawn and familiarly flawed. When the last page was turned, I missed them, and Harris’ world, profoundly.


* Correction: as pointed out to me, Harris’ first novel, The Evil Seed, was in fact her first published fantasy, and I am quite wrong here.

3 thoughts on “REVIEWS: Runemarks; Runelight, Joanne Harris

  1. I think it might be a return to form if anything, I’m pretty sure her first novel was The Bad Seed or something similar and was about vampires living in Cambridge. It was okay, though she was really snotty and critical of it when her other stuff became popular which put me off her a bit.

    1. The Evil Seed! You are quite right. I’m going to see if I can find a copy somewhere now you’ve mentioned it. Still, it’s something to see she’s certainly not leery of promoting the Rune series, which makes me think maybe it’s not fantasy in general she had an issue with, but just that one book.

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