From the Greeks and Romans of Percy Jackson to the Egyptians of the Kane Chronicles, bestselling author Rick Riordan has spent the last ten years sharing with kids the myths of the great civilizations of the Mediterranean. In his latest book series, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Riordan heads north to the land of Vikings, explorers, and glorious battle. Lose the toga, grab your battle axe, and join Magnus and his friends in the often brutal, but never boring, world of Norse mythology.
I had the chance to chat with Rick Riordan about the first book in his upcoming series, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 1: The Sword of Summer, and the challenges of sharing with middle readers legends that can make even the most stout-hearted warrior a little weak in the knees.
GeekDad: Outside of Marvel, which is not exactly true to the source material, there isn’t much about Norse mythology in pop culture. Was it difficult to keep Marvel’s version of Thor, Loki, et. al. separate from “real” Norse mythology when telling Magnus’s story?
Riordan: Not really. I’m a fan of the comics, have been since I was a kid, and I enjoy the movies, but, as you say, they are not very true to the myths. I’ve been reading the myths since I was about twelve, so I had a good sense for these characters before the Golden Age of Hemsworth and Hiddleston. Now whether the readers will have trouble getting those images out of their heads–that’s another question.
GeekDad: In The Sword of Summer, you mention Boston’s Norse roots as well as Viking incursions into Russia and the Middle East. Have you always been fascinated with Norse mythology? Did the fact that you currently live in Boston contribute to the book?
Riordan: The idea for Magnus Chase is about ten years old, but once we moved to Boston I quickly realized the city was a natural fit for the story. It has a surprising number of built-in connections to Viking lore. Those Vikings are insidious–they seem to get into all sorts of places you’d never expect, like Russia, the Middle East, and Boston. As a history major and later a history teacher, I always loved reading about the Norse exploits. Fearsome raiders, yes, but also fearless and ingenious explorers.
GeekDad: Norse mythology is not exactly for the faint of heart, and I feel like Magnus Chase is a bit more graphic than the Percy Jackson series was. Were there ever moments during writing where you had to remind yourself of your target audience and dial it back a bit?
Riordan: Valhalla is basically about non-stop, never-ending carnage on the battlefield. That is Viking heaven. The scene where Magnus first charges into battle against the other einherjar–that was challenging to write. It had to be not too scary, even a little funny, but also true to the violent spirit of Valhalla. Hopefully I managed.
GeekDad: Speaking of target audiences, I’ve seen some websites rating The Sword of Summer for ages as low as 9-12 years old, while I personally felt that with the social themes you were aiming for more of a young teen audience. Actually, my teenage years are long behind me and I loved it. Do you think it’s fair to pigeonhole a book into a specific demographic?
Riordan: Oh, I quite consciously target the middle grades because that’s the age group I taught and know best. I did not set out to make Magnus Chase older in terms of social themes. I do know that the number of older teens and adults who read the books has grown quite a bit. Partly that’s because readers are sticking with the books as they grow out of the target demographic. Partly it’s because a good story should appeal to any age group. At least I hope so! Definitely I love hearing about families who read the books together. The parents should, I hope, get some enjoyment out of them too.
GeekDad: So, there’s been a fair bit of ribbing about the book cover, including tweets referencing “Kurt Cobain and the Gods of Asgard,” but the cover artist was actually very true to your description of Magnus, including Magnus’s mom specifically saying how he looked like Kurt Cobain. Do you work with the artist for your book illustrations? What is your take on illustrations in novels in general and the criticism that they influence how the reader envisions the characters?
Riordan: Everyone judges a book by its cover. That is undeniable. In the first five Percy books, John Rocco the illustrator made the conscious decision–a wise decision–never to show Percy’s face. It’s always a risk to do so, but I left myself open for that with Magnus. I did put in a joke about how Magnus’ mom always teased him for looking like Kurt Cobain, and John Rocco really ran with that. Well… that is how I imagined Magnus looking, so I can’t complain! There’s another Magnus portrait coming out from Disney soon where Magnus is wearing a green T-shirt, and fans are already saying he looks like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. So you can’t win.
GeekDad: With Magnus and his street friends, you do an excellent job of humanizing homelessness. What made you want to add that aspect to his back story?
Riordan: Several reasons: Homelessness is a big problem, obviously, and in Boston the winter is especially difficult. I read some good articles on teenage homeless in The Boston Globe. That got me thinking about the homeless kids I’ve taught in my classroom over the years. I taught one boy who lived in a car. I taught a girl who was on the streets with her mom, a crack addict, until she was put into foster care. You look at these kids in the classroom, and you can’t necessarily know how horrific their lives are outside school. I wanted to honor their resilience and spirit. People might not think about children when they think “homelessness,” but the problem is huge.
GeekDad: In The Sword of Summer, one of your main characters is a hijab-wearing Muslim girl and another is the child of a Norse god and a former Civil War era slave. Do you feel like we’re seeing a trend towards more diversity in popular culture? Is diversity something that is difficult to achieve when the constant among a series like this is the culture and mythology of one specific people?
Riordan: I haven’t found it to be difficult. It seems natural since none of these cultures have ever existed in a hermetically sealed context. Myths and cultures have been bleeding together and influencing each other since there have been myths and cultures. Frankly, I like having a diverse cast of characters because a non-diverse cast would be boring, and it wouldn’t be realistic or representative of the kids who read my books. I like fantasy. I write fantasy. But a fantasy world where everybody is male, white, Christian, American, middle class and straight… that’s too fantastical for me to suspend disbelief. Yawn!
GeekDad: In the years between The Lightning Thief and Magnus Chase you’ve watched your own kids go through their teen years. Has that experience influenced how you write teenaged characters?
Riordan: It’s been quite a journey watching them grow up with the books. Haley, my oldest, inspired Percy Jackson when he was seven. He just turned twenty-one. Both my boys have grown out of the age I write for. That’s bittersweet for me, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. They still help me, but now instead of being my audience they are sort of the elder statesmen of the series. They have grown into great editors and critical readers. They also take it upon themselves to keep me from getting a big head, and I do appreciate that!
GeekDad: Rick Riordan: Folkvanger or Valhalla?
Riordan: Hand me an axe, dude. I’m going to Valhalla and I’m going to take that hill!
Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 1: The Sword of Summer releases October 6th, and is available for pre-order today on Amazon.com. You can read my review here.
About Rick Riordan
Rick Riordan is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, the Kane Chronicles, the Heroes of Olympus, and Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard. He is also the author of the multi-award-winning Tres Navarre mystery series for adults.