Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Valhalla, Jennifer Willis (5 stars)

Summary from her website: Sixteen-year-old Sally Dahl is a rare, modern-day Norse Witch with more power than she realizes. Playing sick from school in Portland, she’s casting rune spells during a rare astronomical convergence to bring about a better, happier planet — and hoping her parents don’t find out.

What Sally doesn’t know is that the Norse gods are still around, albeit without their divine powers — Odin is a high school principal, and blustering Thor is about to lose yet another job as a photocopier repairman. But Heimdall has the perfect cover as a forest ranger while he and his kin hunt for the newly reincarnated World Tree and try to prevent Ragnarok, the literal end of the world that could be timed to the same alignment of stars.

Instead, Sally stumbles across Managarm the Moon Dog, a lost god who seems desperate for her magickal help. But does he really share Sally’s vision of a more peaceful world, or are his intentions much, much darker? And what can she do about the ancient Berserker warriors she accidentally calls up, who pledge their allegiance and then demand junk food runs to Voodoo Doughnut and Burgerville?

I met Jennifer in May while participating in Wordcount’s Blogathon. Thanks to my daughter’s fascination with all things mythology, my house was eagerly anticipating the movie, Thor. Jennifer was such a giving and witty blogger, so I was intrigued to read her book. Finding out it was about Thor in modern-day times was icing on the cake.

The story centers around Sally, a teenager experimenting with powers she doesn’t fully understand. She soon meets a real Norse god, Managarm. Unfortunately, he’s out to undermine the other gods and plays on Sally’s naiveté and vulnerability.

Action abounds, but I found myself most drawn to the scenes of modern-day gods, stripped of their powers, trying to make it in the real world. They reminisce about their god days, feasts and battles, while trying to fit into their jobs and fighting with girlfriends. Can you imagine finding out your boyfriend is really the brother of Thor? He’s fighting to save the world, but can’t even explain why he’s really late. Priceless. Add Odin as a high school principal. Genius.

Sally’s job is to call forth loyal, battle-ready warriors, not to mention save the world: “Though she was only sixteen, this would be the great act of Sally’s life. The world—and the ancient spirits she resurrected—would thank her for it.” But would they? Other warriors are springing forth siding with Thor and his family. Between the two sides, you have everything from old ladies to an entire football team, the Vikings no less, fighting. Thor’s brother, Loki, plays a role, but he’s not the bad guy you would suspect from the Thor movie. He’s misunderstood, fragile even.

I commend Ms. Willis on her ability to combine battle scenes and softer sides of the participants with humor and reality. She also did an excellent job tying in the lesser none (at least for me) Norse god mythology. The characters are memorable, a key to a great read for me. I fell in love with Sally’s cat based on name alone, Baron Jaspurr Von Pussington, III, and my heart broke in a pivotal scene involving Frigga, Thor’s mother. She is a goddess, but still a mother and certainly not impervious to loss.

I wanted Sally to “get it” before she did, but I can’t imagine the teenage dilemma of finding out you are the Moon Witch, only reincarnated every twenty generations, and a pivotal player in a god-struggle. She comes through in the end in grand fashion, and the novel left me wanting to know more about her future adventures.

Well-written and expertly crafted, Valhalla is a must-read if you enjoy mythology, strong characters, humor, and action.

Follow Jennifer Willis on Twitter and Facebook.