Joanne Harris, author of “Chocolat,” turns her attention to young readers with her latest novel “Runemarks” ($18.99, Knopf).
Maddy is an outcast in her village of Malbry, born with a runemark on her hand — or a “ruin-mark” as its known to the people who have renounced the old Norse gods and now follow a god known as The Nameless. Magic is strictly forbidden, and those born with the mark of it are shunned at best, and in some cases, executed at birth.
The girl spends her days cleaning the Seven Sleepers Inn in the village and daydreaming about the return of the mysterious traveler known as One-Eye. He doesn’t see Maddy as an outcast. Rather, he views the runemark as a blessing and has been secretly teaching her the magic that is her birthright during his visits over the last seven years.
Now the world is changing, and when One-Eye returns, he asks much more of Maddy than their regular lessons. He sends her into the goblin-ridden underworld of Red Horse Hill, just outside the village, to receive a magical ancient artifact known as the Whisperer. Maddy is armed with little more than simple rune spells and a warning to stay away from a former associate of One-Eye, a trickster and the reason that One-Eye himself can’t retrieve the item.
The journey will bring Maddy all the way to the borders of Chaos and beyond.
Needless to say there are quite a few twists and turns, revelations and surprises in store through the course of the story. I won’t give them away any more than those with a little knowledge can already guess from the setup above. It will leave the reader with a slightly different impression of the Norse pantheon.
“Runemarks” will certainly be a challenging book for the young readers that it’s aimed at, not only because of its heft, but also because of the content. While it is an engaging adventure story, it also tackles some serious moral questions and is thought-provoking even for adult readers. Fantasy fans of any age should be able to appreciate it.