About a week ago I saw a tweet from one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, saying the e-book version of his story Odd and the Frost Giants[i] was on sale for only $1.99. I leaped at the chance to get something I was sure would be good for so cheap. After several long minutes grappling with the text of this novel, I have decided to review it here and make you all aware of something sure to make you happy. I will discuss elements of voice, character and plot, as well as gushing about how awesome Neil Gaiman is (hint: it’s pretty awesome.)
The first thing that must be said in a review of this novel is that it was written by Neil Gaiman. For any Gaiman fans out there, this is enough to know exactly what to expect. It is funny, witty, strange, but above all charming and heartfelt. It is written for children, but it is something adults can easily enjoy. Think, How to Train Your Dragon, but with pictures[ii].
Odd and the Frost Giants is the story of a young Norse boy who lost his father and shortly after became crippled. He is not much liked in his village, and one day decides to run away to his father’s abandoned woodcutting cabin. There he meets a fox, an eagle and a bear and discovers that they are in fact the Norse Gods Odin, Thor and Loki, transformed by a frost giant and banished from Asgard. Odd helps them find a way back into Asgard and tricks the frost giant into leaving, thus allowing the gods to return to their rightful places. Odd is healed by the Goddess Freya and sent back home, where he reunites with his mother.
The voice of the story is something Gaiman does extremely well. He has written novels for adults, young adults, children’s books, graphic novels, television episodes, short stories, and probably more. He excels in these massively different venues for a few reasons (probably a whole other post here), but for now let’s focus on voice. It is a children’s book, and as such it carries a simple, straightforward, child’s voice. This is not to say it is simplistic or childish. In fact, the subject matter is quite weighty and serious, but it is experienced by a child so we get a child’s view of it. This type of voice does two important things. Firstly, using a child’s voice makes the story easy to read and approachable for readers of all ages. Adults will find a fun, compelling story that can be knocked out in an hour with very little effort, and a child won’t have any trouble with overarticulate language or metaphysical musings[iii]. Secondly, the voice simplifies serious themes found in the novel—such as death, loss, grief, beauty, etc.—making them easy for all readers to understand and connect with without cheapening the experiences which such feelings occasion.
The characters are also all uniquely Gaiman, in that nothing is quite as it should be. The Norse Gods are more like petty children than fearsome deities, always bickering about who is to blame for their current situation rather than doing anything useful. Odd on the other hand is the unlikeliest hero. He is a child, a cripple, an outcast. The villagers think he is strange, possibly not right in the head. Yet he actually sees the world more clearly than anybody else. He hears talking and the only creatures nearby are animals; therefore they must have been talking. When he learns they are exiled gods he doesn’t bat an eye, he just says they’ll solve the problem in the morning. While the gods argue about who is to blame, Odd finds a way back to Asgard for them. Then, he approaches the Frost Giant alone and when asked, “WHAT IN YMIR’S NAME ARE YOU DOING HERE?’ Odd just smiles and says, “I’m here to drive the Frost Giants from Asgard” (p. 77). Then he does so, but not as a God or a great Viking warrior would. Instead, he just listens to the giant and helps him realize he’d be much happier back home. The giant himself is not what one would expect here. He is not inherently evil. He does not want to destroy the world. He wants the payment the Gods tricked his brother out of, and he just wants something beautiful to take back to his world of bleak ice and stone. In Gaiman’s world, every character is important and unique. No one is a stock character. Villains have feelings too, and heroes are just crippled boys. This above all, in my opinion, is what makes this story such a great read for children and adults alike.
The story is a standard hero’s journey which also follows the Gaiman principle of not being quite what it should be. In the heroic journey an unlikely hero, usually a young man, embarks on an adventure during which he grows and becomes the man he needs to be to defeat the evil villain, save the world, and get the girl. Odd and the Frost Giants is the story of Odd, our unlikely hero, who embarks on an adventure during which he gains wisdom and confidence in himself, but doesn’t otherwise significantly change, and in the end he drives the giant away by simply being himself. It is a story is about a boy becoming greater than he is, not by tapping some mystical power, but by realizing the fullness of his own potential. That said, this is not one of those ‘you are good enough and never need to change’ stories. In fact, after the adventure is over Odd remarks disappointedly that the gods haven’t learned at all. The great lesson of the story is wasted on them, but we know it’s not really about them anyway. It’s Odd’s story, and by extension our story.
I highly recommend this novel to anybody. It is easy to read, but captivating and inspiring in a way more ‘literary’ works cannot be. I recently read Pride and Prejudice and very much enjoyed it. I am currently reading Moby Dick and very much enjoy that. Literary masterworks have their place, and can be quite engaging and exciting, contrary to popular opinion. But Odd and the Frost Giants is so much easier to enjoy because it is simple, yet profound. The story and characters are compelling and complex, even in a simple, honest world. Gaiman blends these opposing characteristics so masterfully it seems as though they were always meant to be together. If you want to have fun reading, and you want a book that doesn’t require a dictionary to get through every paragraph, but still want something engaging and meaningful, this is the book for you.
[ii] I want to post some pictures from the book here, but I have not yet received permission from the illustrator to do so. Some pictures can be viewed legally on websites linked below.
[iii] I’m looking at you Moby Dick.