Potential spoilers ahead. Continue at your own risk.
There are few title characters of a series who die within the first 50 pages of their first book, but when you are the son of a Norse god, a ride to Valhalla with an angry teenage Valkyrie is just the beginning of your adventures.
Good Morning! You’re Going to Die.
The title of the first chapter of Rick Riordan’s new middle reader mythological fantasy, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 1: The Sword of Summer, manages to cover in six words everything you need to know about this book. It’s funny, it’s fast, and it’s morbid. From Magnus’s grisly death — don’t worry, this isn’t much of a spoiler; it’s the first line of the book — to the various methods of battlefield massacre in Valhalla, Riordan is faithful to the tone of the old Norse myths. For kids raised on Hemsworth and Hiddleston, this can be difficult to reconcile. Thor is not some blond Shakespearian English-speaking Adonis, but a foul-mouthed, gassy ginger who rides around in a chariot driven by two goats that he consumes every evening and then resurrects from the bones each morning. Loki isn’t traipsing across the universe, making deals with Thanos and other space beings. He’s imprisoned in a cave, tied to the rocks with the entrails of his own son — who was killed by his other son — where a giant snake is constantly dripping painful venom onto his face. These are the two most recognizable, but The Sword of Summer is packed full of old Norse legends like these that would have Disney executives looking for the nearest Yggdrasil branch out of Midgard.
Readers of Percy Jackson will recognize the “discover you’re the child of a god, go on a quest with new friends, battle your enemy” narrative, and there are more than a few inside jokes for fans of Camp Half Blood’s most famous resident, but where Magnus differs from Percy is in the storytelling. After ten years of writing mythological adventure fiction, Riordan has found the perfect voice with The Sword of Summer. Where Percy Jackson at times felt stilted, as if the characters were just jumping from one death-defying stunt to another, The Sword of Summer flows smoothly towards the inevitable final confrontation, with each hilariously titled chapter building upon the last. Magnus Chase is equal parts witty, brave, and genuinely human, and the supporting characters are rich and diverse.
As the heroes journey across the nine realms in an effort to stop the fire giant Surt, Riordan slowly peels back the layers of each character, revealing weaknesses and experiences that make them relatable to kids: Sam, the Muslim ex-Valkyrie mocked by her middle school classmates and whose family has arranged a marriage for her with a young man who she is actually in love with; Hearthstone, the deaf elf who was never accepted by his people due to his disability and his close friend Blitzen, the dark elf (dwarf) who wants to design clothing, not forge weapons; and of course, Magnus, the homeless kid with the rapier wit whose mother was murdered by giant wolves. Kudos to Riordan for creating such a diverse cast of characters as well as not forcing a love interest between the two main characters. In fact, the entire book is devoid of any manner of cliched teenage love story, although there does appear to be a blossoming romance between some of the supporting characters, including one that might shock a few people.
Finally, fans who recognize the Chase surname, and caught the reference to the uncle and cousin in The Blood of Olympus, may be disappointed to discover that, while Annabeth does have an important role both at the beginning and the end of the book, she is not an active character in this story. However, it’s safe to assume she’ll be back for Book Two along with the rest of the inhabitants of Floor 19 of The Valhalla Hotel — well, maybe not one — fighting against those who would hasten the arrival of Ragnarok.
While my kids and I thoroughly enjoyed this book, parents should be cautioned that, in the spirit of the source material, The Sword of Summer is absolutely packed full of violence and gore, tempered only slightly by the humor Riordan builds into the carnage. It is important kids understand that, unlike our world, in the world of Magnus Chase, there is no permanence to death. Goats are killed and resurrected the following day. Warriors are impaled and beheaded in glorious, bloody battle in Valhalla and wake up the next morning just fine. Gods are decapitated and go on imparting their wisdom. The Sword of Summer is an incredibly entertaining read that melds old world fantasy with the social challenges kids are dealing with today — just be sure they’re prepared to handle the barbarism inherent in Norse mythology.
Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 1: The Sword of Summer is available today from Disney Hyperion Publishing. Be sure to check out my interview with Rick Riordan where we discuss Magnus Chase and the challenges of sharing with middle readers legends that can make even the most stout-hearted warrior a little weak in the knees.