Review by Mary C. Verstraete, Ph.D., F.SWE, SWE Editorial Board
Book Series Titles:
Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard
The Sword of Summer
The Hammer of Thor
The Ship of the Dead
Series by Rick Riordan
Ever since the age of 8, when I discovered the genre of science fiction, I have been an avid reader. I would gobble up books. Amid numerous trips to the local library, space, science, animals, and adventures filled my summer vacations. Once I reached college, the daily reading requirements from my classes caused me to put the brakes on reading for pleasure. And then came graduate school, and all those research papers, and on into academia, which meant I would read only on vacations or occasionally in the summer, when I wasn’t teaching.
The value of young adult fiction
Retirement has allowed me to reignite my passion for reading. I primarily read fiction — just about any type of fiction. I enjoy everything from murder mysteries to adventure, science fiction, fantasy, and so on. Although I am 61 years old, I have also found that I enjoy some of the great books written with young adults as the intended audience. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling is a great example of fiction written for youth that can be equally enjoyed by adults. This past summer, however, I devoured Rick Riordan’s young adult series that illuminates the Norse gods, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard.
Magnus, the protagonist, is a homeless teen who lives on the streets of Boston. His close friends are Hearthstone (Hearth), a deaf man who has been rejected by his family due to his disability, and Blitzen (Blitz), a tall dwarf who wears an abundance of clothing in even the hottest weather. Within the first 40 pages, the reader learns that Magnus is the son of a Norse god, and it is his 16th birthday, the day he dies heroically and is taken by a Valkyrie to Valhalla, where all who die as heroes are training to prepare for Ragnarok.
Now, many of us know Ragnarok, as well as Thor, Loki, and Odin, from the Marvel movies. However, this series of books introduces the reader to much more of the Norse culture and myths. Similar to Riordan’s previous series, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard takes the reader both on a great adventure and a wonderful introduction into Norse mythology.
While fascinating and enjoyable, these attributes are not the reason I wanted to write this review, however. During the second book of the three-book series, The Hammer of Thor, I realized that Riordan had done something truly unique with the characters in the book. And the fact that I didn’t even realize it until the second book made it even more remarkable.
From diverse friends to shapeshifting to gender fluidity
As mentioned earlier, Magnus is a homeless teen, and his friends are a deaf man, whom he communicates with using sign language, and a dwarf who has an aversion to sunlight. In Valhalla, Magnus becomes friends with a diverse group of heroes, including TJ (Thomas Jefferson Jr.), who is the son of a freed slave and Tyr, the Norse god of war. TJ was sent to Valhalla after saving a platoon during the Civil War.
As the books continue, readers are introduced to Magnus’ Valkyrie, a Muslim girl named Samirah Al-Abbas (Sam), and the religious customs she follows when she is in human form. She is also a daughter of Loki, whom we know to be the power-hungry trickster and adopted brother to Thor. It also becomes clear that Loki is a shapeshifter and can take the human form of a man or a woman, or that of an animal.
Further research (norse-mythology.org) purports that Loki is the father of Hel, the goddess of the underworld; of Jormungand, a giant serpent who kills Thor; and of Fenrir, a great wolf who eventually kills Odin. Loki fathered all these offspring with the giantess Angrboda. He also has a traditional wife, Sigyn, with whom he fathered a son, Nari.
In addition to these offspring, after shapeshifting into a mare, Loki becomes the mother of Odin’s horse. Later in the series, we are introduced to Alex Fierro, another child of Loki’s, this time with a human mother. Like his father, Alex also has the ability to shapeshift and frequently switches between male and female, and when the need arises, into an assortment of animals. Magnus is drawn to Alex throughout the second and third books, but is confused by the gender fluidity of his new friend.
A message of acceptance
Reading these books reminded me of many conversations I have recently had with my sister, who is a costumer and volunteer in community theater. She is active with children’s programs and the adult shows, and has been presented with some of the pronoun choices that children, teens, and adults are using. She and I have discussed how studies have shown that the use of correct pronouns in youth can reduce depression and the risk of suicide (lgbtlifecenter.org).
As I became aware of Riordan’s diverse characters — not only in terms of race or religion, but also gender identity — I was surprised to see that his Magnus Chase series was published between 2015 and 2017. Considering the differences between those years and now, I was encouraged that such a forward-thinking series of books depicted such a positive group of role models for today’s youth.
So, does Magnus sort out his feelings for Alex? You will have to read the series to find out.
Editor’s note: Please see this issue’s Life & Work column for a discussion on pronoun usage.
Mary C. Verstraete, Ph.D., F.SWE, is an associate professor emeritus of biomedical engineering at The University of Akron. She is immediate past chair of the SWE editorial board, was named SWE’s Distinguished Engineering Educator in 2007, received the Society’s Outstanding Faculty Advisor Award in 2011, and became a SWE Fellow in 2016.