Runemarks by Joanne Harris

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Runemarks by Joanne Harris

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Rich in world building, imaginative and energetic, this is a fun quest fantasy based on the Nordic pantheon. There's lots of magic, lots of action and a few laughs along the way. Not a classic, but great fun.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 500 Date: August 2007
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 978-0385611305

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Maddy Smith was born five hundred years after the end of the world. The new order is, well, orderly. Magic is forbidden. Imagination is frowned upon. Nobody admits to dreaming. The old gods are gone and in their place the Order is bringing, well, order. Unfortunately for Maddy, she was born with a ruinmark; runes bring ruin in this new - orderly - era, you see. So Maddy can do magic. And, in secret, she enjoys doing, even if it is just to keep a few pesky goblins out of the cellar. Maddy and her ruinmark aren't very popular though, and Maddy's only friend is One-Eye, an Outlander trader who comes to town just once a year. This year, he wants Maddy to open Red Horse Hill and retrieve a relic from the old days. And when she does so, all hell breaks loose and we finally get to meet the Aesir and the Vanir themselves. The old Norse gods are abroad again, and so are is their rune magic, and they're pitted against the Order, which has some magic of its own.

Ye gods. Another adult writer penning for the children's market. I've been disappointed in a few of these recently and so picked up Runemarks with some trepidation. But, thank heavens, I put it down feeling rather satisfied. Runemarks is a Tolkeinesque quest adventure using the pantheon and rune magic of the Nordic gods. It's energetic, exciting and funny and it has enough world-building going on to satisfy even the most trainspotterish of junior fantasy fans. But most importantly of all, it's pitched perfectly. The prose is straightforward, vigorous and totally lacking in pretension - as it should be in books aimed at even sophisticated young teen or tween readers - but neither is it self-consciously "dumbed down", which so many writers of adult fiction seem to think is appropriate in their I Can Write A Book For Children enterprises. It isn't appropriate; it's patronising, and it generally leads to a poor book. Three cheers to Joanne Harris for not doing this.

The action is non-stop, the magic is brilliant and the characters are all fully-rounded. Maddy and Loki in particular came alive from the pages for me. I spotted the villain about halfway through, but the denouement - an absolute triumph - came as a complete surprise. Runemarks has just right the proportions of fun, excitement and darkness. If you compare it to what someone like Melvin Burgess is doing with the Norse legends in Bloodtide and Bloodsong or to the wit and world building in Terry Pratchett's Discworld for children in The Wee Free Men then perhaps it falls short. But then, so do almost all the other fantasy books on the shelves. Runemarks though, stands up happily to just about all the rest of the competition. It's a jolly romp but a jolly romp of some quality. We thoroughly enjoyed it.

My thanks to the good people at Random House for sending the book.

Children who enjoy world-building in fantasy novels would also like D M Cornish's Monster Blood Tattoo and Catherine Fisher's Incarceron.

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Buy Runemarks by Joanne Harris at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Runemarks by Joanne Harris at


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Diana said:

As an avid reader/book buyer of all sorts of books I actually purchased "Runemarks" for a younger family member. Anyway, having been laid low over the Christmas/New Year break with one of the current infections and looking for light relief I read it and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Your reviewer is obviously more widely read in the genre than I am but as a reader of all sorts of sci-fi/fantasy over the past 45+ years (from well before it was "fashionable") I was very impressed with this book and shall be recommending it to my adult children who are also keen readers. Unless I am much mistaken in their taste they will enjoy it as much as I have and I would recommend it as an excellent quick moving read to any adult who enjoys fantasy books as well as the supposed target market of teenagers. The book certainly is a splendid alternative to TV for hours of entertainment.