There was a boy called Odd, and there was nothing strange or unusual about that, not in that time or place. Odd meant tip of a blade, and it was a lucky name.
Neil Gaiman’s charming children’s story, Odd and the Frost Giants, opens with that bit of information. In spite of his name, Odd has not been very lucky lately. His father, a woodcutter, died during one of the village’s sea-raids. Later, Odd, trying to cut wood himself, badly injured his leg. Now he walks with a limp. His mother is remarried to a village man with many other children who does not care for Odd, and winter shows no signs of abating this year. One night, Odd slips out of the great hall, takes a side of salmon and one of his father’s axes, and runs away to his father’s woodcutting cottage in the wintery forest — and here, his adventure begins.
Gaiman introduces Norse mythology when Odd meets a fox, a bear and an eagle that are more than they seem. Soon, Odd is on a quest to free the stronghold of the gods, Asgard, from the frost giants. Odd must use his courage and his wits to help the three (it is quite obvious who they are from very early on). Odd is observant, and his awareness of the natural world allows him to, for instance, figure out a way to open the rainbow bridge that links Asgard to Midgard, our world. Odd’s most powerful weapon, though, is his smile. He has used it to baffle and confuse the village bullies, and that technique works just as well on gods and frost giants.
Without being preachy or too sugary, Gaiman gives us a young hero who uses his awareness, his wits and his ability to listen to overcome obstacles and defeat a dangerous adversary. Even though the story is short and simple, there are faint threads of trademark Gaiman darkness in it — like at the Asgard feast at the end.
Loki, who had to sit down at the far end of the table, was pleasant enough to everyone until he got drunk, and then, like a candle suddenly blowing out, he became unpleasant, and he said mean, foolish, unrepeatable things, and he leered at the Goddesses, and soon enough Thor and a large man with one hand, who Odd thought might have been called Tyr, were carrying Loki from the hall.
Another of Gaiman’s trademarks is his humor, and there is plenty of that here, also, whether it’s a casual sentence like, “There were no full-time Vikings back then. Everyone had another job,” and Odd’s observation later in the story, when he is riding on the back of the bear, that “I am just like one of the brave lords in my mother’s ballads. Only without the horse, the dog and the falcon.”
Odd is a very familiar Gaiman character, and the three bickering gods are familiar too, and none of that limited my enjoyment. I read a British edition of this book (Bloomsbury), enlivened with lovely pen and ink illustrations by Adam Stower. They added a dimension to the story. This is a book that wants to be read out loud, although an advanced young reader would certainly enjoy it. Kat’s review, here, is of the audiobook. I struggle with audiobooks but I might give this one a shot, just to hear Neil Gaiman read it to me.