Maddy, the central character in the novel is a bit of a loner. She was born with a rust-coloured runemark on her left hand, which sets her apart from the other villagers. Animals born with runemarks are normally regarded as deformed and are routinely slaughtered. Maddy, being human, was spared, but is widely regarded with suspicion by the other villagers. Set in a post-Ragnarok world in which the Norse Gods have been stamped out of the history by the Order, an austere, puritanical regime, all mention of magic and the old legends is banned. The story begins with Maddy, now a teenager, working as a drudge in the local inn, discovering that goblins have got into the cellar again. Despite the fact that magic has been banned, the villagers occasionally find Maddy's latent magical ability useful, and dispensing with marauding goblins is one of those uses.
From this opening scene, the author leads the reader through a sequence of flash-backs, which illustrate Maddy's childhood, largely unhappy, until she met an old traveller, known as One-Eye (a much weakened Odin), who starts to teach her about the Runes, their meaning and their power. At the same time, he tells Maddy - and therefore the reader - some of the main Old Norse legends and the main characters, the Vanir and the Aesir and the events leading up to the battle of Ragnarok.
Once the background is established, Odin then embroils Maddy in a quest to find and ancient treasure which is buried deep beneath the local hill, Red Horse Hill, which is suspected locally to be the source of the marauding goblins. Together they open the sealed entrance hidden beneath the ancient hill carving of a running horse and start the adventure which will lead to encounters with many of the most famous Norse Gods (such as Loki, Thor, Skadi, Mimir, Frigg, Hel) and then to a confrontation with the Order and a new final battle between the forces of Order and Chaos.
In some ways the book reads like a classic fantasy quest, battle of good against evil, with a teenage heroine and a "race against time" to save the world - which Maddy and her allies do. However, the setting of the Norse legends is not often used for children's and YA fantasy and the way in which the author has attempted to capture the character of the squabbling between the gods and other characters such as the goblins introduces a strong strand of humour.
Joanne Harris loved reading the Norse legends as a child. She says that she found them more attractive than the Greeks and the Romans, "funnier,more human and hugely more dramatic". Runemarks is based loosely upon the first novel she wrote, aged 19, which was called Witchlight, a hugely sprawling 1000 page monster of a story, which was rejected by every publisher. She carried on writing about the Norse Gods, creating a post Ragnarok world in which they played out their adventures. And then she moved onto other things, other books and became the bestselling author of Chocolat, Gentlemen and Players amongst others and, most recently The Lollipop Shoes (2007).
And that might have been that, had it not been for the fact that Joanne has a daughter. One day, she dragged Witchlight out of a drawer to read to her. Her daughter loved the story, so Joanne started writing a new story, and read it to her, chapter by chapter. That story became Runemarks.
In Runemarks, Joanne Harris uses the Runes of the Elder Script (Younger Futhark) and the New Script (Elder Futhark). Runes are symbols that were used in divination and believed to hold divine significance to the Germanic peoples that used them, as well as corresponding with sounds to make a legible script with out divine significance, much like the Roman Alphabet used in Western Europe and the Americas.
Joanne Harris is currently writing a sequel, titled RUNELIGHT..
Notes and references
- ↑ Jones, Nicolette (2007-08-26). "Runemarks by Joanne Harris: Children's book of the week". London: The Sunday Times. Retrieved 2008-09-07.
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 Joanne Harris website: .
- ↑ "Info about RUNELIGHT, the sequel of RUNEMARKS, on the author's official website". 2007-08-26. Retrieved 2009-05-20.