Page 45 Review by Stephen
"The wise man knows when to keep silent. Only the fool tells all he knows."
Reviewers, take note: you're supposed to intrigue, not give the entire game away.
A wise and wonderful tale reprising known Norse mythology in a new guise, and another of those all-ages books which will overwhelmingly be picked up and relished here by adults. Like many of Gaiman's stories, it is in part about the power of words and the determination to succeed - but also the secret of smiles.
Originally published in 2008, this new die-cut hardcover edition is generously illustrated on every page by Chris Riddell (see THE SLEEPER AND THE SPINDLE and FORTUNATELY, THE MILK... also by Gaiman), each black and white portrait adorned with lavish, silver-ink frames. The bear is gigantic, his eagle is imperious and that fox is as lithe as you like.
Odd is the son of a Scottish mother who loves to sing - of "fine lords riding out on their horses, their noble falcons on their wrists, a brave hound always padding by their side... freeing the oppressed from tyranny" - and a Viking father who stole her away during a particularly fine day's pillaging.
However, because his father would not even touch her until he had taught her enough of their language to clearly state his honourable intention of making her his wife, they ended up loving each other very much indeed.
Unfortunately he died at sea.
When told the news, Odd didn't cry, he didn't say anything. He merely shrugged.
"Nobody knew what Odd was feeling on the inside. Nobody knew what he thought. And, in a village on the banks of a fjord, where everybody knew everybody's business, that was infuriating."
That, and his bright smile, unnerved his settlement.
Now, his father had been a woodsman, a true master of the axe, invaluable to a community where wood was used to make everything - "wooden nails joined wooded boards to build wooden dwellings or wooden boats" - and, determined to make himself useful, Odd took up his father's axe, so heavy he could barely lift it, and set about felling a tree. And he did. But it fell on his foot and it fell on his leg and it crushed those bones completely. Still, he used to axe to dig himself free, cut a branch for a crutch and hauled his father's heavy axe home, for metal was scarce and could not be left out to rust.
Two years later, Odd's mother remarried. Fat Elfred already had seven children and did not care for a crippled step-son, especially when drunk. In winter the men drank more and, confined to the Great Hall, tempers would fray and fights would break out, and that year spring never came. The ice refused to melt and the snow refused to soften. "The games got nasty. The jokes became mean. Fights were to hurt." So Odd decided he'd sever his few ties completely and retreat to his father's log cabin deep in the heart of the forest.
And it's there that he meets a flame-coloured fox, a voracious bear and an eagle with only one eye.
Strangely, he discovers, they can speak...
Deliberately, I have taken you no further than what effectively is the prologue, but every element I've introduced is vital for the journey that follows: determination, resourcefulness, that knowing smile, and keeping it under your hat.
Readers of Gaiman's graphic novel series SANDMAN and his American Gods prose will relish Neil's return to three of his favourite characters. I particularly enjoyed the eagle with its one-word screeches, the bear being a bit stupid and the fox being extremely embarrassed about once being a mare. You'll see, as their history with the Frost Giants unfolds.
All I will only add is that I've long admired Gaiman's ability to put you in other people's shoes, and then have you walk a mile in them:
"Odd pushed himself to keep walking, one step at a time, remembering when he had walked with ease and never thought twice about the miracle of putting one foot in front of the other and pushing the world towards you."
The things we take for granted...