Ambition only takes you so far. Being able to pull it all off is what counts. Norse Code is a chaotic, interminable mess over which debut novelist Greg van Eekhout exerts little storytelling discipline. That van Eekhout simply cannot control the monster he's unleashed in this vaguely urbanized Ragnarok epic is painfully obvious from the start. The book not only never successfuly establishes a consistent tone — its prologue leads you to think it's going to trade heavily in Jim Butcher/Steven Brust snark, only to veer uncomfortably between that and Peter Jackson spectacle throughout the rest — but doesn't give us any likable heroes to root for either. Most frustratingly, it doesn't even build upon its one interesting idea, preferring instead to fling us headfirst into pandemonium and let us more or less fend for ourselves. There are some fantasy novels out there I dislike, but about which I can still give grudging praise to one or another element where the author manages to avoid faceplanting fairly well, such as atmosphere, or humor, or impressive world-building. But not here, gang, sorry. Norse Code is just bad.
It's the present day, and the disillusioned god Hermod, son of Odin, wanders southern California with his trusty dog Winston, hoping to do something to stave off impending Ragnarok though he really can't be said to have anything like a plan. If it weren't for the bad guys — among them wolf cubs who will grow up to eat the moon and the heavens and whatever else — pretty much walking right up to him and saying in effect, "Hermod, the story's starting now, care to join in?", he may well have been able to sit the whole thing out.
Elsewhere in LA, Kathy Castillo is a Valkyrie whose past life was that of a typical college student, until she and her sister Lilly were senselessly shot dead in a drive-by. While Lilly was consigned to Helheim like everyone else in history, Kathy was chosen to join the ranks of the Valkyrie under her new name, Mist. Now she works with other undercover Valhalla types — Valkyrie, Einherjar — for the NorseCODE company. They conduct DNA testing to find members of the general public descended from Odin's line to fight for his armies in the upcoming apocalypse. But Mist has moral qualms about the interview process, which involves abducting whomever they find and forcing them to die fighting so they can be properly resurrected themselves. When the latest of these abductions goes wrong, Mist decides she's had enough and goes rogue, determined to enter Helheim itself and rescue her sister, the last poor abductee killed, plus do whatever it takes to derail the progress of Ragnarok while she's at it.
Had van Eekhout built upon some of the above with a bit more focus, he'd have really had something here. An SFnal take on Norse mythology mixing the epic fantasy and technothriller genres? Now you've got a story! But it is not to be. The book is so determined to be the most spectacular spectacle you've ever spectated that van Eekhout cannot resist piling sound and fury upon itself, until the whole affair is just numbing. Frankly, there are issues of the Marvel comic Thor from 40 years ago that offer a more sophisticated reimagining of Norse myth, and that get the sense of grandeur right to boot.
The flow is disjointed and erratic, the narrative peppered with ideas van Eekhout cannot be bothered to flesh out. Odin's two ravens, Hugin (Thought) and Munin (Memory) flutter by occasionally to offer commentary in first person, for reasons I still can't fathom, as they're never exactly comedy relief and they contribute nothing meaningful to the plot otherwise. A conspiracy against Odin is introduced, only to be ignored for most of the novel, and when the conspirator is dealt with at the climax, all you do is shrug because it was never an element of suspense anyway. Minor characters appear and then disappear seemingly on nothing more than whim, which I suppose would be more of a problem had I ever managed to convince myself I gave a tinker's damn for any of these gods or people. Rather than developing his cast to the point where we can have a real investment as readers in the fate they're all trying to avoid (I mean, I ought to care about the end of the universe and all, I'm just sayin'), van Eekhout favors a widescreen special-effects epic. It's just the blunt truth that, as a debut novelist, he's out of his league there. The more excessive his battle scenes get — which is very — the more you wish this manic folly would end already.
No, Greg van Eekhout is not the first newb novelist in fantasy's history whose skills have failed his ambitions, and he won't be the last. He simply should have saved Norse Code for his third or fourth novel, and not his first. As it is, if anything can be said to be distinctive about Norse Code at all, it's that it may be the only epic fantasy to include a line like, "I'm Hermod, son of Odin. Fuck off." Only too happy, big guy.