SKALDENLAND by JAMES MORTIMORE
HB, 375 pages, Obverse Books
“Skaldenland”, eight years in the writing, is James Mortimore’s first original novel, after an apprenticeship (as Jim Mortimore) writing tie-ins for Cracker and Doctor Who. It tells the story of Chad and Brun, brother and sister, whose summer holiday is dramatically interrupted when they find an old, dusty music player in a mysterious junk shop. The Symphonion can play without song discs, but it also has the power to turn summer into winter, and to waken long-dead Norse warriors. And it is taking Brun away from Chad. How can he save her from the Symphonion’s dangerous song, when he isn’t sure how to save himself?
The novel has a surprising and endearing retro feel. It is reminiscent of British children’s fiction from an earlier era, such as “The Box of Delights” or, particularly, Alan Garner’s “The Owl Service”, which has a similar take on Celtic, rather than Nordic, myth. Partly this feel is due to Mortimore’s dramatic use of language, which is places reads more like poetry, and partly due to the strange maturity of Chad and Brun. The whole story seems slightly askew in time, modern yet old-fashioned. It’s a mix that could have been hard to pull off, but it works well here.
The language may be a little too rich for younger readers, and some scenes, notably one featuring walking scarecrows, are unsettling. The brother/sister/lover relationship between Chad/Baldur and Brun/Freya, occasionally skims a little too close to incestuous, with little of the usual quarrelling and sniping that characterises sibling relationships. But the story is sweeping, and epic in tone, scope and ambition.
Let’s hope it doesn’t take another eight years for Mortimore to produce a follow-up.