Everyone who’s ever read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods pretty much loves it. If by some bizarre turn of events you have yet to read it, you’re definitely doing yourself a disservice, but admittedly it’s not for everyone – though anyone who’s a fan of Gaiman’s Sandman will invariably get a kick out of it, with its focus on humanity mixing with mythological and archetypal figures like Odin and Thor.
However, some people’s tastes run towards more Marvel Comics’ take on the God of Thunder than Neil Gaiman’s. For people who like their physical manifestations of Nordic myth and legend larger than life and ready to beat the shit out of you with a sledgehammer in between talking about the futility of trying to defy your wyrd, do yourself a favor and pick up The Age of Odin by James Lovegrove. I just finished the book myself recently – loaned to me by the same friend who loaned me The Further Adventures of Beowulf – and the only way I can describe it would be to imagine if Robert A. Heinlein had set Starship Troopers in Asgard, substituting frost giants for bugs and Loki for Neil Patrick Harris.
Taking place in present-day, fans of Gaiman’s take on the genre will find the story familiar, as the Norse gods of legend – Odin, Thor, Freya, Heimdall, et al. – have much diminished in power from their glory days due to the lack of human belief in them. As a result they’ve had to rely on alliances with humanity in order to fortify their ranks in preparation for Ragnarök, but the similarities to American Gods end there, outside of the fact that both authors are British.
Instead, Lovegrove creates a world where the vicissitudes of life in Midgard (by way of south London) are met with the dry, unrepentant, and irreverent gallows-humor of Gideon Coxhall (Gid to his friends and enemies), a pensioned-out soldier in his 30s with a failed marriage and an estranged son, relegated to selling toner cartridges for printers to make ends meet. Dissatisfied with his life, Gid is enticed by an old war buddy of his to go north to seek their fortune by answering a call for “private security contractors,” only to discover by the time that he gets there that he just signed up to join the ranks of the Einherjar to fend off Loki and his battalion of mechanized infantry, including massive, high-tech versions of Nordic monsters such as Fenris and Jörmungandr.
The Age of Odin is the kind of story you read while imagining Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as the main characters, with Edgar Wright directing the movie adaptation. In fact, if Hot Fuzz had been set in Iceland and had the climactic fight on the pitching deck of a mechanized airship instead of in the middle of a model village, you wouldn’t be far off from imagining the tone and pacing of the novel. Admittedly, Lovegrove is less about parody and satire than Hot Fuzz, but the book is positively dripping with pop culture references, though if you don’t watch a lot of BBC America some things are just lost in translation; for instance, unless you know that the Vauxhall Astra is roughly equivalent to a Ford Escort hatchback in looks and performance, you’ll kind of miss the joke.
Even for someone completely unfamiliar with the peculiarities of UK English, the book is still wonderfully enjoyable, as the world seen from Gid’s cynical, wisecracking point of view is a vibrant and and amusing, even when confronting his own nearly-certain death (which he does, countless times, whether it be in a fistfight with Thor or a duel with a frost giant), and while the novel does have some gruesomely violent scenes, it’s realistic without being gratuitous or overdone. Lovegrove’s writing is an entertaining fusion of Douglas Adams and Dan Abnett – as if Zaphod Beeblebrox and Ford Prefect were dropped into a Warhammer 40K novel – but in essence it’s military science-fiction; however, instead of one of a thousand Napoleon-On-A-Starship space operas that, say, Tor Books is notorious for churning out, The Age of Odin is filled with more believable, well-rounded characters on the whole than your typical “don’t fire your mass accelerator cannons until you see the whites of their vernier jets” type of writing.
All in all, an absolutely fun read overall, and one I would recommend highly for anyone who enjoys their British SF with a strong helping of pop culture humor, or looking for a good story with gods and humans fighting alongside each other against overwhelming odds but without all the introspection of American Gods.