Gods and monsters have always been staples of the stories we tell. From ancient times right up through the last season of Game of Thrones, gods and monsters are always a hit. The ancient myths humans once embraced were, at their heart, epic stories involving magic, immortals, and quests, so it’s no surprise tales like those found in the old Norse myths make have been a popular inspiration for science fiction and fantasy writers. There’s a deep vein of genre books that borrow from, or are outright based on, Norse myth. The 10 books and series listed below are just the tip of the iceberg.
Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman
Gaiman’s no stranger to Norse gods (see: American Gods, highlighted below), but in his new book, he’s not simply picking apart old myths and using the parts to build new stories—he’s actually recasting them and retelling them with a modern approach. Gaiman somehow manages to faithfully recreate these ancient tales while weaving the various narratives into a collection of stories that also hangs together as a novel. The gods and mortals emerge as real personalities, and the old myths coalesce into a story arc with real stakes and emotional payoff. Did you expect any less from Neil Himself?
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Magnus Chase series, by Rick Riordan
Riordan’s made a name for himself with his middle grade fantasy books inspired by ancient myths; his current project, the Magnus Chase series, takes its cue from Norse legends. Magnus Chase is just a kid—a kid who happens to be the son of Norse god, a fact he discovers just as Ragnarok rolls around. Trolls and giants are rising, Thor keeps losing his hammer—and Riordan locates the vein of thrilling excitement in the old legends that made them so compelling to people a thousand years ago, and mines it for a modern audience of discerning young readers.
Edda or Burdens series, by Elizabeth Bear
Bear drills down into the agonizing weight of responsibility immortals and gods bear for the entire world in this melancholy series, which begins thousands of years after Ragnarok. The Valkyrie Muire fled the last battle, leaving her peers to die, as the world is slowly turning to ice. Humanity is holed up in the last city, Eiledon, protected by strange magic. Epic events like Ragnarok and Armageddon are a natural fit with sci-fi and fantasy; Bear’s true achievement here is her exploration of the heartbreaking terror and sadness of an entire world ending.
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
Gaiman’s classic novel is coming to television this year, and color us excited. The Norse gods are only part of the story in Gaiman’s brilliantly imagined universe, in which belief manifests the gods and then imbues them with power that dissipates when the world moves on to new gods—leaving the Norse gods waning and weak, while new American deities like The Technical Boy rise. It all makes for a thrilling conflict between tradition and modernity that drives a compelling fantasy narrative that hums along with its own ancient power.
The Renshai Trilogy, by Mickey Zucker Reichert
Reichert uses the Norse myths as a jumping-off point, reimagining them as the background for an alternate realm where four wizards struggle to maintain the balance of a world that’s about to be destroyed as a prophesied “Last Battle” approaches. When the powerful warrior race of the Renshai are destroyed in an ambush, a lone Renshai survives, imbued with a powerful prophecy that may spell the doom or salvation of men and gods alike.
The Hammer and the Cross series, by Harry Harrison
Harrison’s old-school series is light on the magic and the gods, but his fascinating alternate history turns on an intriguingly possible “what if.” In a 9th century England overrun by Viking invaders, Harrison explores the complex relationship between religion and government, between invaders and their victims, and between slavery, freedom and authority. The Norse myths battle the new religion of Christianity in a realistically depicted Dark Age—but Harrison chooses a surprising new path for his history.
Eaters of the Dead, by Michael Crichton
Crichton always surprised; in this 1975 novel (which served as the inspiration for the film The 13th Warrior) a civilized, educated Arab courtier falls in with a group of Viking warriors. He finds them gross and brutal—and slowly realizes they have taken him in order to assist in a battle against the beasts that emerge from the darkness to consume them (think Grendel). While Crichton offers a pseudo-scientific explanation for these events, the old myths loom large in what is a pretty scary story.
The Wizard Knight, by Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe writes complex, richly-detailed puzzle-box stories in his sleep. In The Wizard Knight duology, he tells the story of a young American boy who is brought to a magical world and aged to adulthood. He becomes a warrior, and is soon accepted as a wizard as well, due to his connection to the forces that brought him in the first place. Wolfe weaves his world from various legends and myths, the Norse myths and gods foremost among them, creating a universe of stacked worlds you can ascend and descend, each with its own flow of time—and its own dangers, monsters, and gods.
The Broken Sword, by Poul Anderson
Anderson’s classic fantasy was published in the same year as The Fellowship of the Ring, and is, dare we say it, in the same class. A Viking kills the family of a Saxon witch and sees his son stolen from him by the elves as punishment—and replaced by a nonhuman changeling. The son and the changeling are destined to meet on the field of the great battle that will determine the fate of the faerie, the gods, the world itself. The mighty sword Tyrfing, broken by Thor, is the key to everything. It’s an epic fantasy that couldn’t be any more classic.
The Gospel of Loki, by Joanne M. Harris
If you know Joanne Harris as the author of literary fare like Chocolat, you’re correct—but she also writes in a variety of other genres, hiding, Clark Kent-style behind the addition of that middle initial. In this pretty great example of her talents, Loki narrates his story like a celebrity writing a tell-all, and becomes a delightful antihero and unreliable narrator of a story that is simultaneously modern and old-school.
What is your favorite mythic update in SFF?