It’s no surprise that Melvin Burgess, author of Junk and many other powerful novels for teenagers, has chosen the Norse god Loki as the subject of his first adult novel: questioning, tricksy, gender-bending and anti-authority, Loki is perhaps the quintessential teen.
We have not been short of treatments of Norse myth in fiction over the last few years. AS Byatt’s Ragnarok was exhilarating, richly wrought, written through the lens of her child self’s encounters, and with a focus on the end of the world. More recently, Neil Gaiman, in Norse Mythology, has thrown impish humour into the mix. Both dealt with the myths canonically, not straying from established narratives.
Burgess’s approach is different. He writes from Loki’s perspective, in the first person, which lends the book the air of a young adult novel. Loki, far from being a liar, wants to inform us that he’s been telling the truth all the time. It’s the other gods who have been defaming him.
Loki introduces himself with adolescent haughtiness: “I am one of those who sprang into being because the world demanded me; it had no choice. They were all bred like cows. I am.” Loki feels hard done by: as a shapeshifter, he is constantly called on to help the gods, most memorably when they ask him to transform into a mare in order to catch the eye of the stallion Svadilfari. In a hilarious scene, he makes the gods beg him to do it. He falls completely in love (something he does several times throughout the novel, with other gods and goddesses). The result is Sleipnir, a many-legged mount he gives to Odin.
On the mystical side, Burgess is capable of chapters that brim with numinous light, as when Odin nails himself up on a tree to die. Burgess also infuses the gods with humanity: Odin sacrifices his eye to gain further knowledge, and turns into a wreck of a man, everyone’s great-grandfather on the edge of death.
There are anachronisms, which work. Canapes are served at Asgard’s many drinks parties. Odin starts to go insane because he has peered into the multiverse, while the traditionally male god Baldr turns out to be a hermaphrodite, with Loki taking Baldr’s “second virginity” in soft-porn fashion on a bearskin rug. One of Loki’s wives, Angrboda, gives birth to enormous monsters, and Burgess gruesomely details their arrivals as if on a contemporary maternity ward.
There is a problem, though, which threatens to undermine the whole, which is that Burgess makes Tyr – a valorous god who sacrifices his own hand to the wolf Fenrir – into the liar, instead of Loki, rather defeating the point of his character. There are other rough parts, as when the origin of humankind becomes a scene of scatology, prompting Loki to address the reader every so often as “arse-born”. The joke works once or twice; thereafter, it becomes wearying.
Odin’s senescent rule becomes more and more oppressive, and the gods of Asgard start to resemble the tyrannical elements of our own civilisation. But the solutions Loki proffers are adolescent: can’t we, like, imagine a world without war, he wonders at the end.
Loki does not offer a particularly incisive view of Norse myth, but it does have enough in it that’s witty or unusual to carry readers along on its own peculiar flow – rather like silver-tongued Loki himself.
• Loki by Melvin Burgess is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.