What if an ancient god escaped his fate and history was thrown to the wolves?
Churchwarden Michaels thought it was just a run-of-the-mill crazy old man who stood in the graveyard, hellbent on studying the 1,000-year-old Viking memorial there. But when things start changing and outright disappearing, Michaels realizes there is more to this old man than meets the eye. Now, Michaels finds himself swept up in an ancient god’s quest to escape his destiny by reworking reality, putting history—and to Michaels’s dismay, Christianity itself—to the Viking sword.
What about the Norse gods that made you want to write a story involving them?
There is a song, Brave New World, one of the tracks from Jeff Wayne’s musical version of
the War of the Worlds. It’s sung by the Artilleryman, who recognizes that the Martian invasion is a chance to start all over again. The very first words always resonate with me:
“Take a look around you at the world we’ve come to know/ Does it seem to be much more
than a crazy circus show”.
That might seem like an odd reference, linking Martians with the Aesir, but it’s a common trope. Restart the world. Let the past burn. Utopia justifies the means.
Hope always survives.
Yet when Norse mythology renders the end of the world story, it is done with no such light at the end of the tunnel. It is all doom and gloom, with not an iota of relief. Ragnarok is the end of everything.
So, imagine that you’re a Norseman. You live in a world that you know is coming to a fiery end. The very gods themselves will perish with it. Nothing will be spared – not hope, not dreams, not your culture, nor your children. Would you be paralyzed into indecision and fear?
Yet for the Vikings, the tale wasn’t suffocating. It was a call to action. Just as the gods will
one day die, so too will each of us. The skalds told us that the gods will ride out and face
their doom with courage and bravery, and so should mortal man. The inevitability of our
demise was our spur to great and noble deeds.
It was only when Christian influences invaded this age-old worldview, that rebirth and
renewal came into the equation. Ragnarok ceased to be anything more than a changing of the guard, a symbolic switch to a more palatable and rewarding theology.
I found the dichotomy between these outlooks, and the fact they co-existed, to be
fascinating. And when you look at the crazy circus show around us, with global temperature rises about to make Ragnarok a reality, the only sensible outlook is to act like a Norse, man or god. Face the inevitable with courage and bravery. That’s what makes them worth writing about.
I understand that this is your debut novel. How long did it take you to write?
Months, maybe six all told. And two years from starting to type to hitting the shelves.
I was at dinner with a friend who was talking about the Name of the Wind, and how
Rothfuss wrote his debut over a seven years period. I think there was a subtext that by
taking more time, I could have added more polish. That may be true, but I think writing is a discipline. I joke that someone should invent the Writbit as the equivalent of the popular fitness device. It would track words and chapters instead of steps and calories.
A novel is also a moment. A snapshot of time. My alternate universe is born of global
warming, and insects vanishing, and nations howling in outrage at each other. I wanted to hold up a cracked mirror to the here and now, and that came with a sense of immediacy of purpose.
What kind of research did you do before/during the writing of The All Father Paradox?
There is a wonderful word: hoodwink. It encapsulates all the research I did. Nowadays, we recognize it as a con, a deceit or a hoax. But it once meant “to cover the eyes” – often a prisoner would be hoodwinked with a hood or blindfold on the way to the gallows. Perhaps that’s the ultimate trick, to disguise the end of life.
History is about perspective. It is a source of endless wonder to me that even individual
words can change their shape and slide into a new meaning. Watching that transformation of thinking, looking at how what we believe changes, and then finding the connections between those changes was the bulk of the research.
For instance, I love the fact that Odin is known as the Hanged God and the Lord of the
Gallows, when he is the greatest hoodwinker of them all.
Your book re-imagines the history of the world with Norse mythology replacing the Roman Catholic Church as the major historical building block of the past two millennia. Can you tell us a little about what went into reconstructing history? What are some of the results of this?
Let’s focus in on Christianity for a moment to answer that. Let’s get right back to the start of it all.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”.
It’s one of the fundamental beliefs of most of Western society. Soon enough we have the
Tree of Knowledge and the first man, Adam. And then God created Eve, by removing a “rib” from Adam’s body and fashioning it into the first woman.
But according to Norse myth, Ask and Embla are the first humans (from Old Norse: Askr ok Embla)– male and female, respectively, the “Adam and Eve” of Norse mythology.
The three brothers Vili, Vé, and Odin, are the creators of the first man and woman. The
three deities found two tree trunks, perhaps driftwood, lying on the beach. They took the
wood and from it created the first human beings; Ask and Embla. One of the three gave
them the breath of life, the second gave them movement and intelligence, and the third
gave them shape, speech, hearing and sight. Further, the three gods gave them clothing and names. Ask and Embla go on to become the progenitors of all humanity and were given a home within the walls of Midgard.
Now look at the subtle difference. The Bible’s “She shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was
taken out of man” versus Gylfaginning’s equal partners. The first one always seemed – to me at least – to have a kind of preordained glass ceiling built right in at the get-go. Imagine a more equitable role for the sexes played out over the centuries along the Ask and Embla model, born of the tree, whose very names mean Ash and Elm.
So what went into reconstructing history? Let’s just call it a root and branch review of the fundamentals.
Working in the video game industry for many years, is there any inspiration from that time that went into writing this book?
Certainly, I’ve played some amazing games over the years and there has been a noteworthy resurgence of Norse related games recently – the Banner Saga, Expeditions: Viking, Northgard. My kids are now old enough to tackle Skyrim. When I am I always think of Iain (M.) Banks and some of his great scenes, seemingly born of too many nights on a PC. And so, I’ve certainly led armies and conquered worlds, from Civilisation to Crusader Kings. I even spent a whole month trying to get authentic looking screengrabs of the fall of Rome and Constantinople using Attila: Total War. I’ve posted a few on the Vikingverse Facebook page.
But actually, playing games is a distraction. It’s problem solving and task completion, rather than inspiration and world-building. I can honestly say that the pen is mightier than the pixel.
What is your favorite story in mythology, Norse or otherwise?
I’m a big fan of the Lay of Hárbarðr. It’s a poem about Thor, who is returning to Asgard
after a journey in Jötunheimr, the land of the giants. Hárbarðr obstructs his way and refuses him passage across a swollen river and then the two trade insults.
Over the course of the poem, Harbard boasts of his sexual prowess, his magical skill and
tactical abilities, asking Thor about his. Thor argues back, unaware that the ferrymen is his father, Odin, in disguise. After mocking him at length, Harbard curses Thor and tells him to take the long way around. It acts like a précis of many other stories, offering snippets and hints, but is ultimately most revealing about the personalities of the gods – all bravado and boisterousness.
There are several popular book series that retell ancient mythologies in a more
contemporary setting, ie Greek mythology with Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson. What
sets the Vikingverse series apart from other mythological retellings?
The Vikingverse isn’t really about retreading the stories of mythology, so much as reimagining the whole sweep of history. The novel features a series of interwoven stories, starting in the medieval era and moving through an alternate Renaissance to a Norse modern age. That means everything changes from the Point of Divergence onwards – the English language, the Statue of Liberty, the Theory of Evolution – you name it, and it has been morphed to fit the new reality.
Now, as we note on the book jacket, in this new Vikingverse, “the storied heroes of mankind emerge in new and brutal guises drawn from the sagas”. I made an image of Albert Einstein for example, who is mentioned a few times in the book, only in the Vikingverse he is Aðalbriktr Einnsteinen, which is the Old Norse version of his name. He has a long, braided beard in the promotional material, but the best bit about the image, the bit that attracted the most comments, was the famous formula E=MC².
Switch that into runes and you get E=MC².
I think it’s that kid of thing, the juggling of reality encapsulated in that switch, that really sets it apart.