Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer: Riordan’s humour and wit take on the Norse gods

When my mum asked me several years ago if I wanted to go and see a film directed by the same director that directed one of the Harry Potter films, featuring Greek mythology (a topic I had loved for years), I jumped at the chance. As soon as I came out of the screening of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, I realised I had to buy the book. Once I had read it, I disowned the film of course, seeing how it paled in comparison to the book (and I don’t mean in a pretentious ‘the-book-is-always-better’ kind of way, I mean it in the sense that they took a great concept and storyline and twisted it into a shadow of its former self). I loved the original Percy Jackson series, I loved the Heroes of Olympus series, and so Rick Riordan secured himself in my list of authors whose every book I read.

I have read the first book by Riordan in the Kane Chronicles, which are based around the Egyptian gods, and didn’t love it as much as I didn’t feel attached to the characters. Despite having heard good things about Riordan’s take on the Norse gods, I was slightly dubious when it came to Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer. I needn’t have been.

From the opening, I loved this book. Riordan creates another sarcastic, funny protagonist, and yet somehow Magnus is different enough from Percy that he doesn’t just seem like a copy of the character that so many readers know and love. Riordan retains the hilarious chapter titles that made me laugh out loud just flicking through the contents page, all as original as the ones seen throughout his previous books. There is a great connection to the Percy Jackson series in that, as can be guessed from Magnus’ surname being Chase, he is the cousin of Annabeth Chase, Percy’s girlfriend. This link could have felt forced and an attempt to endear the readers to Magnus, but instead it felt very natural and worked well.

I was slightly nervous that I would not understand this book as well due to not knowing much about the Norse gods, but instead the book serves as a great introduction to them. With a glossary of terms and important figures in the back, and you learning everything along with Magnus, it is very easy to pick up on Norse mythology. A lot of the traditional mythology is interspersed with modern twists – for example, one of the highlights of the novel for me was Thor’s use of his hammer, Mjölnir, to watch tv shows such as Game of Thrones.

One of the other great things about this book is that there is explicit representation. The Valkyrie who saves Magnus, called Sam, is a Muslim teenage girl with a majic hijab that can camoflauge up to two people at a time, and through her character various topics, including arranged marriage and Islamophobia, are explored. One of Magnus’ two protectors, Hearth, is a deaf elf, and his deafness is the only reason that the characters survive the final battle of the book. The characterisation within this book generally speaking as well is fantastic, with a vast array of unique and interesting characters, including a talking sword and two talking goats, and I am left interested to know how these characters develop as the series continues.

With the first chapter of the sequel that was in my copy of the book, I am very intrigued to read the next installment in this series, and any more than follow, and see how Riordan further develops this world that he has created.

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Reflecting on my first year at uni

Having just finished my first year at university, I thought it might be good to reflect on it and share some of my tips for people who are in the position that I was last year – terrified, excited, and almost completely clueless as to what they’re going to face come September.

There’s not much that I can say in terms of workload that hasn’t already been said a million times over – university learning is self motivated. No-one is going to chase you up if you don’t do it, it’s your loss, so discipline is super important – although the occasional nap (or daily in my case) won’t hurt you. At least it won’t if you do a low contact hour subject like I do!

Also, if you do the reading for the lectures, you will understand them far better. Granted, there is some reading that is a little redundant, but it is far better to do it if you have the time to start off with, and then later use your time doing more useful things. Just try to do the reading – you don’t want to be the person that turns up to the first seminar absolutely clueless. Like I said before, university is self-lead teaching to an extent, so get as much out of it as you can by doing the reading.

Realise you’re not necessarily going to get a first. I have a lot of friends who were very high achieving students at school, and they got to uni, got a 2:1 for a piece of work, and were really upset. I’m not saying you’re not going to get a first, you might do, and well done you if you do, but a first is not the be all and end all, and even if you don’t do so well in first year, learn from it. You’re there to learn, after all, so see a lower grade a chance to improve yourself. Go and ask for help if you don’t understand your marker’s comments, and if you need it, ask for help with your essays from the services that are available at your uni. Friends can be invaluable for this, especially with creative writing. Exchanging work and reading through each other’s helps both of you, both in proofreading and in seeing how they responded to the same prompt.

Make sure that you know where you can go if you need help – I have been in the fortunate position not to need any help this year, but knowing where those services are can be really helpful in those times of stress and panic, so you – or someone else – can do something about it.

Here comes another cliché – don’t be afraid to try new things. I started Ballroom and Latin American Dance this year through university, and it has honestly been one of the best experiences of my first year at uni. You don’t have to commit to everything that you sign up for – I signed up for four or five societies after my uni’s societies fair, but I now only regularly attend two of them. And the societies expect this dropout – it’s far better to try these new things and then decide you don’t like them than to not try anything at all and wish that you had come March. Most societies even offer a free trial session, or don’t require you to pay membership until a few weeks in, so you might as well give them a whirl. Societies are also one of the best places to meet people, as you’ll be with people with similar interests to you, and you’ll meet people from across the uni, across departments, across years, postgrads, undergrads… Basically, socieites are great, so sign up for them if you can.

But also remember that it is okay to say no. I was feeling a bit rough the first few weeks of uni, especially in Freshers’ Week, so I went to two quiz nights and one night out. My flatmates asked me if I wanted to go out every night, but as I don’t drink I was quite daunted by the prospect of going out with a large group of complete strangers, so I stayed in my room instead, and I was far happier for it (as was my bank account!). I’m not saying don’t go out, all I’m saying is that if you really don’t want to do something, you don’t have to do it. Try to do new things, but if you’re really not feeling it, no-one is going to hate you for saying no. I’m still good friends with my flatmates, so if my experience is anything to go by, there’s nothing to be feared in saying no.

On the topic of flatmates, remember that you need a little give and take, but at the same time you can’t be a doormat. If you have a 9am you have to get to, or like me have to get up at 4am to get ready for a dance competition, and they’re hosting pres, blasting music and yelling at the top of their voices, just go in and talk to them. If they’re decent people, they will offer to move pres (it’s not like there’s likely to be a shortage of accomodation in walking distance that they can use). If they don’t, just remember to make as much noise as you can getting ready in the morning. (I joke, of course). Do your washing up, tidy and clean up after yourself, take the bin out, but don’t let your flatmates leave you to sort the state of the kitchen or any other shared areas in the flat. I was really fortunate with my flatmates, we’re all quite clean and tidy people. I do, however, have friends who live with flatmates who use their stuff and leave it disgustingly dirty, ruin it, or (the worst flatmates I’ve heard of) don’t take out the bin, rather taking out the full bin liner and leaving it on the floor until it spawns maggots. So basically, good luck with flatmates, and try to be a good flatmate yourself.

Chat to people. There is never an easier time to meet people than the first few weeks of uni – everyone is out to make friends, no-one knows each other. I walked up to someone because I saw them wearing a Welcome to Night Vale t-shirt in freshers’ week, and we’re now really good friends. Granted, some people I spoke to in freshers’ week I now only see on occasion when scrolling through Facebook, but I didn’t lose anything in talking to them. And if you aren’t making that many people during Freshers’ Week, it’s not an issue. It becomes so much easier to meet people once term properly starts, and you have lectures and seminars that force you with groups of people.

Don’t try to pretend to be someone you’re not. The best way to make the best friends is to be yourself, as you’ll end up with friends who are like you. That’s kind of general life advice, but from what I’ve experienced, it’s especially true at uni.

My biggest piece of advice to anyone who isn’t enjoying uni within the first couple of weeks is to at least stick it out until Christmas. What will you lose by staying at uni for a few extra months that you would gain by dropping out after a few weeks? It’s a rollercoaster of emotions – you’ll feel fine for a bit, then you’ll feel a bit wobbly, then awful, and fine again – not necessarily in that order. As I said in my previous post on change, I would quite happily have not gone to university the morning of travelling up, and I would have quite happily gone home many a time during the first few weeks. But now I’m home for the summer, I miss uni terribly. I miss my friends, I miss the city, I even miss my lectures and seminars. So give it your best shot, it can feel really hard at times, but before you know it, it will be the Christmas holidays, and if you don’t feel better by then, then uni probably isn’t for you. Which there is no shame in, uni definitely isn’t for everyone. But at least you would have given it a good go, and you know for sure.

On a more practical note: budget. I sat down with my mum a few weeks before uni started and we worked out what allowance I would need on top of my maintenance loan and the savings I had from working over the summer. I opted for uni accomodation with an en suite, which was expensive, I’m not going to lie (it worked out ~£700 a month, bills included, on an 8 month contract), but I am personally glad I did. I then had to budget a lot, because my loan didn’t even cover my accomodation, so I had to watch my pennies. My recommendation would be to cook as much as you can, if you’re going to be on campus all day, take a packed lunch with you, and find the cheapest place to shop locally. I’m lucky in the sense that I am a vegetarian, and vegetarian food from the supermarket is so much cheaper than meat in my experience. I didn’t go out very much, and when I have gone out I’ve never paid more than £5 for a ticket to get in, and never buy any drinks once I’m out. I also don’t drink alcohol (a personal choice), so I didn’t have that to pay for either. I would add at this point that you don’t have to drink if you don’t want to, you can drink occasionally, no-one really cares. I was convinced prior to going to uni that there’s a massive drinking culture at uni, everyone drinks, and you’re considered weird if you don’t drink, and whilst yes, there are a lot of people who like to drink a lot at uni, they don’t care if you drink or not. It’s your business. And, at least at my uni, there are a lot of societies opting for more non-drinking events – laser tag, bowling, and trampolining, to name but a few. So if that’s a concern of yours, don’t worry.

I hope this has helped someone, and I wish everyone going to uni in September the best of luck, and I hope that you enjoy the experience as much as I do!

137th Best Dad

Dean rolled over in bed, keeping his eyes firmly shut in an attempt to convince himself that he was still asleep. He knew he had mere seconds before his four- and seven-year-old alarm clocks went off, especially as he could feel the weight of his wife, Jodie, in the bed next to him. Apparently, a lie in on fathers’ day was too much to ask for.

Right on cue, the bundles of joy burst into the room, bounding on to the bed and bouncing on top of him. ‘Happy Fathers’ Day Daddy!’ they yelled, without even waiting for him to open his eyes.

Pinned to the bed, he turned his head a fraction and blinked a few times to clear the sleep. His daughters’ faces came into view. Poppy, his eldest, was leaning over him so her gap toothed smile was just inches from his nose, whilst his younger daughter, Niamh, was wriggling around the end of the bed.

‘Good morning monsters.’

They shuffled around so they were laying between him and Jodie and he sat up.

‘We have a present for you Daddy!’

Dean saw Jodie subtly pick up a wrapped up box from her side of the bed and hand it to the girls as she sat up. The girls took it and shoved it at their father with boundless glee.

‘Thank you, girls!’ He ripped into the packaging, revealing the mug in its colourful carboard packaging. He smiled and sighed, before turning it round and reading what was on it. ‘Is that what you think of me then girls?’ He laughed, confused. ‘Where did you find it?’

‘Yeah, we think you’re the number one dad in the whole wide world!’ Niamh shouted, jumping up and down on the bed.

‘No, you think I’m the number one hundred and thirty-seven dad in the whole wide world.’

‘What do you mean?’ Jodie leant over to look at the mug. ‘That’s not the mug I bought.’

‘Huh?’

‘I bought a generic number one dad mug, Dean, and I wrapped up a number one dad mug, just like a million other mums did in preparation for today.’

‘Very funny.’

‘We got you the number one dad mug Daddy, we promise!’ Poppy’s lip quivered. ‘I’m sorry!’

‘I get it, it’s a joke pumpkin, don’t worry, Daddy’s not upset.’

‘But we did though!’

Dean shushed her and turned on the news.

‘We bring you breaking news that many people across the globe seem to have woken up to their “number one dad” mugs becoming slightly less complimentary. Each mug now appears to have a different number on it, and from what our sources can gather, currently there is one number assigned to each father. The cause of this change is not yet known, but it is not considered sinister at this current point in time. Stay tuned for updates.’

Poppy and Niamh had lost focus and were playing a game on their iPad.

Dean narrowed his eyes. ‘That’s weird.’ He shrugged, rolled out of bed and headed for the bathroom. ‘Mind if I hop in the shower first?’

‘Dean. Your mug – and many other mugs across the globe – just mysteriously changed to a random number. Are you not at all concerned?’

‘Nothing we can do about it. Besides, if we do have to deal with some sort of situation, I would prefer to be dressed.’

Jodie turned to the kids, seemingly giving up on her husband, and tried to coax them out of her and Dean’s bed and into their own rooms to get ready.

They left the news on constantly at Jodie’s insistence, waiting for some sort of explanation. None was given.

‘Are we still going out for lunch?’ Dean asked Jodie, looking at her whilst her eyes stayed firmly fixed on the television. ‘The table’s booked for one, and we kind of need to get moving if we’re going to get there on time.’

‘I don’t know, all of this stuff is a little ominous, I’m not sure if I want to go out until we know what it is.’ Jodie chewed her lip, her eyes remaining focused on the reporter who was going through some theories with a scientist of some sort.

‘Well, whatever it is is far more advanced than we are, so I don’t think we’ll be any safer in here than outside. I don’t see why we should let this little mug incident stop us from having a nice lunch.’

Jodie stopped her nervous lip chewing and turned to her husband, incredulous. ‘I don’t understand how you can be so unbothered by this.’

‘Well, I am. Are we going out for lunch or not?’

She rolled her eyes. ‘I suppose so. Do you mind getting the girls ready?’

‘On it.’

Five minutes before they were due to leave there was a ring at the door.

‘I’ll get it!’ Dean called. He pulled open the door and bit back a scream.

Standing in the doorway was a figure around four foot in height, with at least one and a half of those feet made up by a long grey head that bulged slightly to the left and right at the top. There was an eye in either side, and one in the middle, the left one jade, the middle one amber, and the right one sapphire; they blinked independently of each other. From the chin down the creature was a translucent grey blob, from which six arms protruded. It pulled something small and shiny out of itself and pressed a button. The small opening its face that Dean presumed to be its mouth opened and some strange sounds came out. The creature let go of the button and the thing started speaking.

‘I am an official from the Jamoray, here on duty for my peoples with the authority of the Intergalactic Federation. Can I see the father of the house’s rank please?’ The voice was flat and robotic, none of the syllables quite flowing together.

‘My rank?’

The creature held out its shiny thing and listened to it make noise before speaking what Dean presumed was its answer into it.

‘Your father rank.’

This has to be linked to the mugs, Dean thought, maybe if I show him my mug.

‘I’ll get it.’ He turned, debated whether or not to leave the door open for a second before leaving it ajar and dashing to the kitchen. He grabbed the mug off the side, still in its packaging, dashed back to the door and held it to the creature. The creature held out its shiny thing and a light that looked like a scanner came from the device. The creature pulled another device that had also been previously suspended in its gelatinous body and pressed a few buttons. A spotlight seemed to shine over it, and something around the size of a loaf of bread fell from the sky. The creature caught it, and spoke into the device again. The device translated.

‘Father one three seven, this is your charge. Take care of your charge or risk punishment, which can be a substantial fine, jail time, or death depending on your infringement. Thank you and goodbye.’ With that, the creature turned and flew upwards towards the spotlight. The light shut off, and Dean was left holding his “charge”.

He looked down, and what he could only presume to be a baby version of the creature that just gave it to him stared back. As he stared, it transformed, skin becoming opaque and changing colour to match his, head growing smaller and the middle eye disappearing, and a tuft of black hair growing over the top of its head. The middle pair of the arms retracted into its body, whilst the lower pair moved downwards, the hands at the end changing into feet.

Dean almost dropped it.

‘Who was that?’ Jodie said, walking down the stairs, ‘I saw some weird light coming from out…’ The words died on her lips as she saw the bundle in his arms. ‘Dean, what is that?’ The baby creature was focusing on its face now, growing a nose, a human mouth, and ears. It giggled.

‘Could you turn on the news, honey?’ He tried to keep his voice as calm as possible so as not to frighten Poppy and Niamh.  ‘And I think lunch is cancelled.’

‘…just getting reports in that many people are receiving strange baby creatures that have transformative powers. Here is some footage we’re just getting in.’ The news report showed the same thing that Dean had just seen happen on his doorstep happen somewhere else. ‘The creatures are transforming into human babies, and within the blankets they are wrapped in come what appears to be a set of instructions.’

‘Put it down Dean, find the instructions.’

He did as Jodie told him to, and found a piece of paper that said exactly what the creature had told him, with a couple of ‘guidance notes’ underneath

‘This baby will transform to look like one of your own species. Do not be alarmed, this may take a few days. After a week, your charge will be entirely human [human was bolded and slightly separate from the rest of the text] and you can treat it as such. Until then, please feed it only a designated portion from the food packet enclosed.’

On moving the baby, which was now only slightly gelatinous in form, Jodie found a foil wrapped packet, which was segmented into twenty-one sections.

‘Good luck with your charge, and as always, best wishes from the Intergalactic Federation,’ the instructions finished, along with a stamp that was a crude cartoonish drawing of three planets and a rocket ship.

They turned back to the television. ‘The numbers we reported earlier appear to be a global ranking of fathers, from best to worst.’

‘If they’re a ranking, that means I’m one hundred and thirty-seventh best dad in the world. That’s not too shabby,’ Dean smiled, clearly pleased with himself.

Jodie rolled her eyes. ‘Well done. Can we now please deal with the matter at hand?’

At that point, the girls clearly got bored of whatever they were doing and came running in, stopping short when they saw the squirming creature sitting on the side.

‘Mummy, Daddy, what’s that?’ Poppy asked, pointing to it.

‘This is your new brother. Surprise!’ Dean told them, quickly wrapping it back up in the blanket and picking it up. It looked like a boy, he had to presume it was one for the minute.

‘A baby!’ Niamh squealed, running over to them. Jodie grabbed the papers and food packet off the side with one hand, and guided Niamh with the other.

‘Yes, a baby brother. Shall we have some lunch now?’ Jodie said to the girls, putting the creature’s things on top of the fridge on her way to the table.

Niamh and Poppy sat at the table, but the questions did not stop. ‘But your tummy didn’t get big Mummy?’

‘No, because this baby is special.’

Special is one way to describe it, Dean thought as he stared down at the face of the creature, which now looked almost fully human, with just a slight ripple under the surface of its skin. He sighed, pulled out a chair, and sat down cradling the baby, hoping, as part of him would hope for the rest of his life, that this was all just some sort of weird elaborate dream.


I’m currently working on a longer form novel so this is just something short and silly that I thought appropriate as it’s Fathers’ Day this Sunday! I got the idea from this prompt on the writing prompts tumblr account, and I just thought it was a funny idea, started writing, and this is where it went. Hope you enjoyed it!

 

The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: brilliant inside and out

I had heard about The Girl of Ink and Stars many times from many people before I met Kiran Millwood Hargrave – it was Children’s Book of the Month not once but twice at Waterstones, (later going on to win Children’s Book of the Year), was a Financial Times Book of the Year, the British Book Awards Children’s Book of the Year, was nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Award, and was shortlisted for both the Jhalak Prize and the Branford Boase Award. Not only that, but many people I trust for book recommendations and follow online, such as Carrie Hope Fletcher on YouTube, read it and recommended it. And I, as an aspiring young adult author, really wanted to read it.

Initially, many other books got in my way. Naturally, studying an English and Creative Writing degree, I had a lot of poems, novels, short stories, and plays to read for my course, and these obviously took precedence. Everytime I walked into my local Waterstones, there was a lovely display of copies of the book, in windows or on the tables, and I desparately wanted to pick up a copy, but just… didn’t.

But then I met Kiran Millwood Hargrave. She came to do a guest lecture at my university about writing “children’s” fiction was inspiring, especially for someone like me who sits working on my young adult novel whilst my friends work on amazing pieces that sit nicely under the label of ‘literary fiction’. She was incredibly lovely, no pretenses that the process was easy as she projected the word counts of her numerous drafts to show how the first draft was never the finished product, frank talk about the effect of mental illness on her writing process and how she battled through it, and information about the way things are done publishing-wise either side of the pond. She also discussed with us how ridiculous it is that some books are considered better than others due to their genre, a sentiment I very much share. Needless to say, The Girl of Ink and Stars jumped up my reading list, and I bought a copy almost immediately. And I am so glad I did.

The first thing that amazed me was the beauty of the whole book. The cover itself is gorgeous, but the pages themselves are where the true amazement lies. Each page is decorated like a map in keeping with the protagonist Isabella’s dreams and her father’s job as a cartographer. The result is that every page feels like a step on the journey that the characters undertake, mapping out the unknown of their island. I’ve never seen pages like it, and I urge you to pick up the book if only to see the pages.

The only potential issue with a gorgeous cover is that sometimes the contents don’t quite live up to their presentation.

This book definitely did not have that issue.

The story centres around the character of Isabella, who volunteers to guide a search for her friend after she gets lost in what the people of her village call ‘The Forgotten Territories’. More than eager to explore the island and chart it on a map, following in the footsteps of her father, a cartographer, she ventures in to the Forgotten Territories with the search party, and finds herself facing a lot more trouble than she initially expected.

The exposition of the story is slow and subtle, revealing a world that is not too dissimilar from our own – after all, Kiran Millwood Hargrave does say that the places in all of her novels are real places, but they obviously feature some slight embellishments. The relationships between the characters are great – I particularly enjoyed seeing the friendship between Isabella and Lupe, as a focus on friendship rather than romance is so refreshing to see. The mythic elements were really interesting, and tied well into the rest of the plot.

The only complaint I have about this book is that I feel it could have been a little longer. As it was, at just over 200 pages, I felt the world wasn’t explored to its full potential. I would love to have seen adventures spanning over the whole island in depth, as there are some villages displayed on the map that are barely visited, only for a page or two, and some that are not visited at all. The world of the book was so great, it just seemed a shame to leave it at what felt almost like the bare minimum exploration, especially when the protagonist talks about how much she wants to explore the entire island of Joya throughout the novel.

Overall,  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy and adventure, and wants to read something refreshing.

The differences in planning

One curious thing that I have noticed when talking to other writers about how they write is the amount of planning that goes into their work. Some people plan so much that the story is basically written for them, others start with nothing more than an idea and a blank word document.

A quote on this point comes from Zadie Smith, who famously starts with nothing more than an idea: ‘How does anyone begin a story knowing how it will end?’. I am inclined to side with her slightly on this matter – whilst I do have a general plot planned for everything I write, I change things as I go along, as what sounds well in a plan doesn’t necessarily flow well in the real thing. It’s the reason I have to write in chronological order except in exceptional circumstances – I can’t risk wasting my time on writing pages and pages that may not make sense when I write what preceeds it. I do however know someone who had a 5000 word plan for his novel, and just wrote within that. Which to me sounds crazy.

But my planning has reached another level – I have a page in my bullet journal dedicated to tracking the progress of my ideas, with a checklist of initial concept, characters, developed plot, chapters planned, reception of my ideas by my friends and family, the type of narrative… the list goes on. And I only feel comfortable starting to write when I have all these things ticked off, which presents a potential problem:

Satisfaction.

Many people experience this issue – as soon as someone says that your idea is really cool, or seems excited by it, sometimes you can be satisfied by that and the wind leaves your sails. You don’t have to write it, because by that one person, or multiple people, saying that the idea is cool, you’ve received all the recognition you need and subconciously, you stop. This same thing sometimes happens to me with planning novels. If I, like my friend, wrote a 5000 word plan for a novel, I would stop. To me, it’s basically done by that point, no matter how much that is not the case and the actual novel would be more like 70,000 words long.

So, in short, don’t be guilted by other people in thinking you have to write a long plan like I was. Different things work for different people, and there will always be people that do more than you, and always people who do less. You have to find the rhythm that suits you best, you have to keep that satisfaction at bay until you have finished and you are truly satisfied with what you are written, so ignore everyone else, and get writing!