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Valhalla: Absent Without Leave
by Lee Gold
Penmore Press, $19.50 QPB
Published: March 2021

What happens when a modern protagonist dies and finds herself not in Heaven but in Valhalla? Lee Gold, who clearly knows the source material of Norse myths MUCH, MUCH better than ANY of the writers at Marvel or Disney, gets the details right, and then takes Ragnarok in an entirely new direction. There is a very distinctive POV for the telling of the adventure, which particularly savvy readers may twig to early on; but even if you know nothing of Norse mythology, Lee does not keep her readers in the dark for long. She provides all the clues, then makes all plain. And really, there could only be one narrator for this story. 

The premise is that a young woman dies heroically saving the lives of patients after a hospital collapses during an earthquake. She had been a patient herself, and had been part of a D&D role-playing group who used game battles as metaphors for fighting their various forms of cancer. Robin is surprised by her afterlife, but she is made welcome by Knut and Bookwyrm, two of Valhalla's heroes who care more about friendship and storytelling than swinging swords around. They orient her to her new life in the afterlife, and in return she shares her sword's battle magic and teaches them Poul Anderson's rude song about Norse gods. But Robin is appalled by how resigned everybody in Asgard is to the inevitability of Ragnarok. Everybody seems perfectly willing to follow the script, even though there are nothing but tragic outcomes. Robin dares to ask the question, "Can we change this?" and resolves to try.

Here Lee Gold departs from canon, of course, but she doesn't just wave a hand and make it better. Her characters struggle mightily against the inertia of fate and the willfulness of men, monsters and giants who actually want Ragnarok to happen just as Odin and the Norns have foretold, with all the death and destruction and darkness. The future is like a Gordian knot that simply cannot be untied. Fortunately, Robin has been gifted with the sword out of her RPG dungeon: Frostbite, and he is just as determined as Robin is to carve out a different destiny.

And a funny thing happens on the way to Hel's domain: bit by bit Robin and her companions uncover discrepancies. They make friends where they thought to find only enemies, and sometimes they find enemies where the stories indicated there would be alliance. Under the watchful eyes of Odin's ravens, they seek out everyone who might be willing to alter the outcome, perhaps after some bartering of favors or concessions. It is a truly wonderful story of a quest for a win-win outcome in lieu of lose-lose. The worse things get, the harder Robin and her friends fight. Even when they are overwhelmed, they stay defiant.

What impresses me most about this splendid story is how true to the original material Lee is throughout, right down to her use of kennings and her depictions of the tricksiness of Loki, even as she is wringing the stories into a new configuration. This novel is a tour de force, and it has everything I look for in a great story: lots of action, character development, fantastic settings, surprises, reveals, humor, romance, and wordplay. Strongly recommended. - Chris Wozney

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