The Head of Mimir, by Richard Lee Byers, is Aconyte’s second Marvel novel, and the first in the Legends of Asgard series.
I’ve already commented in my review for Domino: Strays, that it’s a bit of a strange activity to be taking on, writing a prose novel about a comic-book character. The Head of Mimir takes that complexity and ramps it up even further, by writing a novel about comic-book characters who are also (to a greater or lesser extent) based fairly strongly on Norse Myths and Legends. Fortunately, Byers avoids the potential pitfalls, and delivers a story that should be satisfying to fans of any of his sources, or simply to people coming fresh to a good adventure story.
In the finest comic-book tradition, The Head of Mimir is an origin story, specifically the origin story for the all-seeing Guardian of the Bifrost, Heimdall. The book begins with a young, thoughtful, but otherwise unremarkable young warrior, out on patrol with his sister Sif, and a band of otherwise unnamed troops during a war between Asgard and the Frost Giants. After Heimdall’s quick-thinking helps his patrol survive an ambush, they return to the heart of Asgard, and we learn that strange things are afoot. As is his wont sometimes, Odin has descended into his vault, and entered the Odinsleep. Rather strangely though, the typical days or, at most weeks, of the Odinsleep have stretched into months, leaving Asgard without its mightiest warrior just as the Frost Giants have developed a previously unheard of level of nuance and strategy to their waging of war. Whilst Odin’s slumber is a concern to many Asgardians, who find their troops being forced back, and the eternal summer of their lands giving way to icy winter, it seems that only Heimdall is really questioning what might lie behind these strange events. In fact, he is sufficiently convinced that something is afoot that he will risk everything, first to investigate, and then to take the fateful steps that will lead him on an epic quest across the ten realms, for the very survival of Asgard itself.
Heimdall’s quest is an epic MacGuffin hunt, which will take him beyond the borders of Asgard, into the realms beneath, and out to Yggdrasil itself, as he visits various realms. Alongside for as much of the way as she can be, is his sister who thinks it’s all a terrible idea, but certainly isn’t about to let him go and do anything this stupid by himself. The two make a remarkably effective team, Sif the brash warrior who likes solving problems with her sword, and Heimdall the thinker who would probably be paralysed by over-analysis, or simply dead from too many enemies without her there to watch his back. As the story is told entirely from Heimdall’s perspective, we only get a limited amount of insight into Sif’s inner thoughts and motivations, but she still feels like a strong, complex character, a figure with great loyalty to her family, and a clear mind that helps her do the right thing, however much it might cut against her broader ambitions.
Their journey has a fairly linear feel to it: at each step Heimdall (or sometimes Fate) will determine the next step on the path, and somehow each time they manage to advance their pursuit of their end goals – whist they certainly take a fairly roundabout route, there are few true setbacks. However, it’s inevitable with an origin story which stars younger versions of well-known characters, that there is a limit to how much tension can really be created. We all know that Heimdall and Sif are going to make it through ok, that the all-father will eventually wake from the Odinsleep, and that Asgard will not be conquered in its entirety by Frost Giants. There is greater peril for some of the original supporting characters of course, but only one of these feels at all fleshed out – she does at least get to play an important role in several key moments of the plot. Again, the lack of uncertainty as to the outcome isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the Norse Legends from which these stories draw were often about recounting the heroics of these great figures in their younger days, and it never ruined those stories to know that Thor (or whoever) would make it out alive.
If you do have a good knowledge of Asgardian lore – both Marvel and Norse – then you’ll be able to see one of the big twists coming a long way off, although I did feel that the writer wasn’t taking any great pains to disguise who the hidden villain pulling the strings truly was. Again, this is a reasonable fit for the genre – how many Thor stories have Loki as the obvious villain from page 2, but still twist and turn in interesting enough ways to keep you reading? Whether you guess who the meta-villain is early on, or whether the big reveal comes as a true surprise for you, the question of how Heimdall and Sif will overcome the latest challenge remains pressing.
From reading The Head of Mimir, I would guess that Byers is fairly well-versed in the original Norse lore as well as simply the Marvel back-catalogue, based on various little nods and easter eggs that he slips in to the text. (I particularly enjoyed the brief explanation of Heimdall’s Nine mothers, both for the way its delivery helps to develop Heimdall’s character, and the knowing nod it gives to the lore). Byers is also careful to note that Heimdall and Sif are Vanir, rather than true Asgardians, a distinction, which a lesser work might easily have swept under the carpet in the name of simplicity. Whilst Heimdall, and Sif in particular, are significantly different in their Marvel iteration from the ‘traditional’ legendary versions The Head of Mimir feels like it achieves an ideal synthesis of comic-book and legendarium as it weaves together its story.
Ultimately, as much as it may sound like a contradiction on a blog about stories related to gaming IPs, one of my favourite things about The Head of Mimir, was how often I forgot that I was reading a Marvel novel at all, as this just felt like another of the secondary-world Fantasy novels that make up the bulk of my leisure reading.
If you’re thinking about running Heimdall in your next Thor deck, then why not give The Head of Mimir a read for some more thematic inspiration? Sadly, I can confirm that reading this book will neither allow you to look at the top 3 cards of the Encounter deck, nor ready Thor, but you can at least laugh at Heimdall teasing his sister about having a crush on the young prince of Asgard and how she’s probably going to marry him one day…
The main thing which makes The Head of Mimir work is the portrayal of Heimdall and Sif, and the relationship between them. Whilst I can’t recall a recent comic or TV plot-line that has placed the two together (I’m not sure if the MCU has ever even hinted that they might be siblings), their relationship is natural, and believable, with the overall result being a very credible portrayal of the younger characters we’ve seen on comic pages and even on our TV screens – although I don’t believe the MCU has ever made any suggestion that they might be siblings.
In conclusion, I really enjoyed The Head of Mimir, it’s an accessible read that clips along at a good pace, but also offers deeper rewards for fans of the source material, whether it be Marvel, the Norse Sagas, or both.
The Head of Mimir is out now, and you can order your copy via my Bookshop page, supporting local book shops and even this blog in the process.
This review was based on an advance digital copy of the book, given to me by Aconyte for the purposes of reviewing.
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