I stumbled upon Kevin Hearne’s A Plague of Giants in a very strange way. I was at a book signing with a friend who was interested in another author that was there (along for moral support, of course), and Hearne was also doing a signing of his latest novel, as well as his Iron Druid series (which is some very intriguing urban fantasy about a Celtic druid living in modern times– and bickering with the likes of our angry boy, Thor, and other mythological beings).
I am a bad fantasy fan. I love fantasy novels. But I also hate them, because I was raised on 70’s pulp fantasy, and for a long time, a lot of the books I read were exactly the same. I got tired of that, but my resources growing up were limited. There are a couple exceptions to the mold: of course, A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, as well as Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings series and Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora. But those come few and far between. Which is why it’s so bittersweet when I find something that really strikes me right in the nerd bone.
Someone at the reading mentioned just how good the audiobook for A Plague of Giants was, and you probably remember from my review of Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, but I loveaudiobooks. So I decided to give it a try. And let me tell you, it got me right in that good, good spot. And one of the best parts was its very strong Norse connection.
The book is full of Norse references as far as the eye can see, even though, like typical epic fantasy, it’s not set in a world that we know. To have a magical ability in this world is to have a kenning— which is a word that comes straight from Norse poetry. In Old Norse, a kenning is a metaphorical phrase used to describe something, such as a brown-noser or an ankle-biter. Norse examples would include, ‘battle-sweat,’ for blood, or even might include mythological references to illustrate, like the common usage of, ‘Freyja’s tears,’ for gold.
The people who receive kennings in Herne’s novel (soon to be a series!) get their own illustrative names: greensleeves for those who work with wood and plant life; stonecutters for those who work with rock; tidal mariners for those who use the ocean.
Hearne’s world of Teldwen shares a very Norse affection for bards. Not only are they beloved and revered, but they have their own form of magic that lends them an unparalleled memory and storytelling skills. Hearne said the inspiration came from Homer and his tellings of The Iliad and The Odessey. But I can see the shadows of skalds in his bard Fintan, who gives us much of the main story. It’s almost like a cross between The Poetic Eddas and Max Brooks’ World War Z. Fintan recounts various tales of heroes and villains both through his bardic magic to a group of refugees– and he does it by literally using their own voices. Some he’s heard from them, some he’s collected from their journals.
And the final Norse connection is, of course, the giants. The opening chapter involves an invasion by thousands of bone giants, who are mysterious, frightening, and evocative. Listening to one woman (one of many incredible female characters Hearne includes in this novel) fight off thousands of them is one of those scenes that just makes me go, “AH FUCK!” I keep making people listen to the first chapter just to get them excited, and let me tell you, it’s working. These giants have the epic mysticism of our jotunns. They are otherworldly and unknowable, and frankly, I love me an unknowable enemy.
It’s going to be hard to keep the characters straight at first, but it’s easier than ASOIAF. Listening to the audiobook helps– there is a male and female narrator and both are top-notch. Some of the voices will start to sound the same (especially with the female narrator, Xe Sands, although her chapters are still equally evocative and beautiful and hold some of my favorite memories from the novel, but there is a helpful guide at the beginning of the book (and a PDF with the audiobook from Audible) to aid you. Luke Daniels, who provides the many varied voices of the male narrators, also performed Hearne’s Iron Druid series.
Herne’s characters are likable and personable, even when they don’t do things we want them to do. They deal with relatable issues– like forgetting to tell their husband they’ll be at work late, getting their house broken into, telling the cute boy they like that they have magical powers no one has ever heard of, dealing with the loss of a loved one, figuring out how to deal with mustard stains. You know, the usual.
This isn’t just good fantasy. It’s great fantasy in a world that feels lived in but not beyond knowing. And it’s got a Norse background– so I know you will be singing the praises to your own friends soon.