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Joanne Harris has made quite a leap from Chocolat to Runemarks. Not aforward leap of quality, but a sideways one of genre and tone. It’s a long ways from enchanting romantic comedy to a raw and sweeping adventure in the underworld of the Norse Gods. This is supposed to be a children’s book, and in many ways it is. My eight-year-old granddaughter loved it. I suspected for a while that it was meant to ride on Harry Potter’s coattails, but it’s unfair to suspect every excursion into magic and fantasy of Potter copycatting. These themes and motifs were around long before Harry and Hogwarts.

What happens is this: Maddy is a feared and different village child (the time seems to be roughly medieval) born with a runemark on her arm. Runemarks are like birthmarks except more dynamic. They glow and burn and jump around and indicate a relationship with the world of goblins and fairies (furies) which beset humans in all sorts of ways. In her isolated rejection, she’s befriended by a strange one-eyed peddler (another reject, this one older who becomes her teacher–seen that one before?) who comes to the village every year or so starting when Maddy is seven and instructs her on the uses of the powers that her runemark gives her. After seven years (note the magic number), circumstances combine to make it necessary to begin force her into using her powers in earnest. She finds a gateway into an underworld where there are more gods and goblins with greater powers than the nervous village humans had ever imagined.

There is a Salem witch hunt quality to the sanctimonious religiosity of the town elders who try to squelch the uprising of the pagan deities. However, it’s not as simple as the Puritans vs truth. Harris’ imagination is more complex and interesting than that. She creates and manages an enormous cast of characters with intricate powers and motives without confusion and creates readers’ sympathy and enmity for all of them. The scope of concluding cast and battle is worthy of War and Peace. You won’t believe who the one-eyed peddler turns out to be. And there are a lot of laughs as she plays with vulnerabilities of the gods’ powers. For example, certain of them can transform into animals, but they have no way for bringing clothes along for when they want to come out of that guise into their more human-appearing form. Thus, there are some truly comic scenes of naked gods and goddesses scrambling to cover or explain their undress. Harris may not have achieved Tolkien status with Runemarks, but she certainly rivals Rowling in literary achievement. Not popularity, of course. But then who does or will ever again?

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