Van has finished reading… Runemarks by Joanne Harris

21 Nov

Okay, so this is going to sound bad but it’s not. Honestly, it’s not. When I first started thinking that I’d like to be a writer I was in junior school. I couldn’t tell you what it was particularly about being a writer that made me think I wanted to be one but I suspect it had a bit to do with my teacher. He was good at everything and good with us kids and he played guitar and he knew how to tell a story. On a school trip, just after lights-out he’d come into the dorm and flick a torch on under his chin – did he have a beard? I think he had a beard – and the atmosphere and the torch and his voice would scare the bejeesus out of me. Not that I’d admit it to my classmates, of course. Anyway, one day in class I’d obviously declared my intention to be a writer so he gave me an exercise book and a pencil and a sharpener and challenged me to do it. So I did. I was so proud of my joined-up handwriting, all slanty on the page, and before long that page became pages. Every now and then I’d stop and shake my hand because it hurt, what with all the writing. And being that age there was a hero, and a woman was trapped somewhere up a mountain, with danger and dragons and… things. I invented some names. And I can distinctly remember the point at which I stopped: my hero was half way up, imprisoned by a cone of fire (I can even remember what I called the cone of fire, and no, I’m not going to tell you). I stopped because I wasn’t sure how to get him out. And I realise now that in stopping here I found my teacher’s one weakness. He liked to see us do well and he liked us to know we were doing well. He gave me gold stars beneath the words ‘half-time report’. The sad thing was that I never finished it because I’d got my reward, my gold stars, and the incentive seemed to fizzle entirely out. It was probably only about a thousand words, looking back, though at the time it felt epic. And I’ll bet my last money it was truly awful. And this is why said at the start of this review that this is going to sound bad but it’s not. Because reading Joanne Harris’s Runemarks brought all this back to me.

It did this because it tapped straight into those things that you already know, even in primary school, about fantastical stories. Your hero must be a loner. That said, your hero is going to have to trust someone or something that probably shouldn’t be trusted because your hero cannot do what they must do on their own. Because your hero is about to go on a quest. This quest will be dangerous and probably some people and definitely some animals will die. It will get harder and more dangerous and there will come a time where it simply isn’t feasible it’s all going to work out. But your hero is a hero, so… What it tapped into was the sheer joy of invention, the unadulterated bliss of feeling these people you read about – or as I was then, write about – inhabit a wondrous and untouchable place in your mind’s eye where the rules are different, where the unexpected not only can but will happen, where it’s the law, where power is at your fingertips, where the small are not cowed by the weak, where you, whoever you are, are able to win.

I have to say I loved it. It simply made me smile. It’s somewhat relentless in pace and a tad irreverent in voice, which suits the inhabitants right down to the ground. There’s a delightfully threaded message in there too if you care to ponder the weave a little, but if you don’t, no matter. You’re still going to take a crash-course careen through the nine worlds – or a good part of them anyway. You’re going to boo at the villains when you know they’re villains and you’re going to cheer the heroes in the same way. You’re going to smile when dignity besmirched is stood upon and you’re going to look wryly at the world on these pages and see the ways in which it’s not so different from our own.

You can thank Marvel for two disconcerting things. Firstly, it’s really hard to picture Loki without a certain Hiddlestoneness about the twisted grin, and secondly, the familial relation is a generation shifted in Runemarks. Of course if the source material were set in stone it’d be history rather than legend. And legend has a much more appealing ring to it!

Sometimes it’s a bit too easy to be sniffy about reading. We get bogged down by that word literature and we start saying things like, fantasy, you know, it’s really not my bag. The trouble with that is that we limit ourselves, limit our intake and our experience. And remember too that genres are really only there to sell books. Oh, you like that? Try this. But what’s the harm, once in a while, of picking up something unexpected? Okay, if you pick a book up and you don’t like it, move on. No harm done. Every work of fiction you read is fantasy, after all. None of it’s real except in yours and the author’s imagination. And if you find one you really like, tell your friends. Share it and then you can talk about it with them and relive it. There’s immense power in words if only we allow them in and who knows, that next book, that unexpected read might just have the power to change your life. It happens you know. Books really can do that.

Runemarks was published on the 2nd August 2007 by Doubleday ISBN:9780385611305


You can (and should – she says wise things and sometimes tells stories) find Joanne on Twitter @Joannechocolat, or on her website


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