Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman has previously written young adult novels -- Coraline and The Graveyard Book -- and picture books -- Crazy Hair and Blueberry Girl -- but Odd and the Frost Giants sees him hitting the land in between those great children's-book empires, with a novel solidly launched at the middle-grade audience.

Odd is a short book, and somewhat obvious; Gaiman tamps down his natural slyness and wit for this younger audience in a way that he never did for their older siblings. Coraline and Graveyard Book, for all their brevity, are two of his best and most biting works, belying the usual idiocy that adult writers "limit themselves" when they writer for a younger audience. But Odd, though clever and engaging, is obviously a more circumscribed story than Gaiman's books for older younger readers.

Odd is a boy of indeterminate years, growing up smart (and lame, after an unfortunate tree-chopping accident partly caused by that cleverness) in a small Nordic village somewhere cold and unspecified, when the men of his land still went as Vikings to get what they wanted -- food, valuables, wives. Odd's own mother was raped away from Scotland by his now-dead father, which Gaiman, unsatisfyingly, mentions once early on in the novel, and then explains, with much more of a tone of juvenality than his voice can sustain, that said father was so in love with that mother that he did carry her off, but didn't touch her until he made her fall in love with him. There are writers who could pull that off -- William Goldman, in full Princess Bride mode, could, and Gaiman could have made a good run at it as well using his full powers -- but it sits their like a Lie-to-Children in this novel, a stumbling block for anyone, young or old, who is not as innocent as Gaiman assumes his reader will be.

Odd detests his stepfather and new stepsiblings, and so spends his time, at what he hopes is the tail end of a far-too-long winter, out in his father's abandoned wood-cutting hut. And there he's met by three animals -- a fox, a bear, and a one-eyed eagle. They turn out to be more than they seem, and soon Odd is off with them to confront the frost giant of the title, across the rainbow bridge Bifrost. (For Gaiman, as is often the case, is classically oriented, and so a fantasy story set among Vikings must mean their cosmology as well.)

Odd's name is in the title, and this is a book for young readers, so the reader can assume it all comes out right in the end. It also doesn't take very long to get to that end; Odd is less than two hundred pages, and those are small pages with large words on them. (Not to mention the dozen or two full-page illustrations by Brett Helquist, which are excellent but do tend to make the reading experience even quicker than one expected.)

Odd and the Frost Giants was originally published in the UK as a special edition for World Book Day -- this imposed certain limitations (of length and, I believe, of audience as well) that made this book what it is. It's a great cause, and there are probably thousands of kids in the UK for whom Odd is the first book they owned for themselves, or read with enjoyment. But, outside of that, it is a quite slim, and rather more juvenile than expected, minor work from Gaiman. I only mention that so that the completists among you don't get your expectations up -- but, if you have a young reader nearby who might appreciate Odd and the Frost Giants, go and find it as quickly as you can.

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