Tombstone Blues by Chadwick Ginther (Ravenpress, 2013)
After beating back the might of Surtur, Ted Callan is getting used to his immortal powers. The man who once would stop at nothing to rid himself of his tattoos and their power might even be said to be enjoying his new-found abilities.
However, not everyone is happy the glory of Valhalla has risen from the ashes of Ragnarök. With every crash of Mjölnir, Thor, former god of thunder, rages in Niflheim, the land of the dead.
Now that Ted’s woken the dead, there’s going to be hell to pay.
An elf waited between two poles in the dirty sand of a beach volleyball court in one of Winnipeg’s civic parks. He traced a line with his foot, as if daring them forward. Ted didn’t need an engraved invitation. He rushed the cocky little fucker.
And so, in one paragraph (and some exceedingly bloody follow-ups), Chadwick Ginther demolishes every Rankin/Bass-centric belief I’ve ever had about elves. Stop-motion holiday specials and cartoon cookie commercials aside, these elves (or, more correctly, álfar) ain’t nearly as friendly as I’ve been led to believe. They’ll chop up Orlando Bloom and serve him up on buttered toast before he could even blink his steely Legolasian eyes.
Ginther, methinks, is unapologetic for destroying my cherished childhood memories, and more power to him. Not for him the cuddlyfication of our mythologies; in Tombstone Blues, Ginther reviews the records and reminds us that our legends have their roots firmly entrenched in violence and bloodshed and warfare (much as Gemma Files does with Aztec mythology in her brilliant Hexslinger Trilogy). That he places these reminders within a splendid action-oriented urban fantasy set in Winnipeg, Manitoba (!!!), is all the better.
A continuation of his superb Thunder Road, Ginther ups the ante on his revitalization of Nordic folklore, throwing his unwilling hero Ted Callan into an otherworldy plot to bring him down. Tattooed with the image of Mjölnir (Thor’s hammer) on his arms, Ted has been gifted with the powers of the Gods, and some of them aren’t necessarily overjoyed. Loki, the trickster God so helpful to Ted in Thunder, is nowhere to be found. Hel, the goddess of the dead (and Loki’s daughter), wishes to reestablish herself as a force in Midgard (Earth). Thor wants his hammer and isn’t shy about asking for it back, captaining the Naglfar (Hel’s ship, made of the fingernails of the dead) back to our reality and causing quite a bit of havoc.
A great building appeared, some palace of mortal power, topped with a golden idol, a fey boy holding wheat and a torch. Thor could sense the power rolling off the structure. Built by wizards, perhaps. It was near the centre of his new domain, on a river. It would do nicely for a palace. But first, the new must make way for the old.
Thor dropped the hammer over Naglfar’s gunwales. Columns crumbled to powder. The stones above, once supported, listed and collapsed in a cacophony of sharply breaking limestone.
Thor shifted the tiller on the ship of the dead, swinging Naglfar’s prow towards the building. There was a metallic gong as the ship crashed into the golden idol that sat atop the mortal palace. Just like taking the head from a jötunn. Thor smiled as the ship sheared the top of the building away. He listened and laughed as the idol loudly crashed into the bowels of the building.
If you’ve been paying attention, yes, that’s the Manitoba Legislative Building being demolished by the wrathful god of thunder. Sorry, Golden Boy, we hardly new ye. To stop Winnipeg from becoming Thor’s new homestead, Ted and his pregnant partner Tilda (a Norn, or witch) battle Gods, dragons, elves, valkyries, and more, and then it starts to get complicated.
Reading Tombstone is sometimes like taking a crash course in Norse mythology, but luckily the plot is zippy enough not to get too bogged down in all the heavily umlauted references to Nídhöggur and Jötunheim and Skídbladnir. I should think that viewers of The Avengers might discover the Marvel Comics’ portrayal of these gods to be slightly out of sync with Ginther’s unflattering portraits. These Gods are sadly all too identifiable, prone to rage and jealousy and vanity and terribly bad judgment. Thor won’t be teaming up with Ted to fight crime any time soon, is what I’m saying. Although, sequel?
Ginther takes pains not to simply retell Thunder Road with new villains. Ted was a neophyte brawler in the first volume, but now that he’s gotten his sea legs, it’s time to up the ante. Where once he defeated giants, he now battles capital G Gods, an altogether more humbling experience. Alongside this comes his rising appreciation of the responsibility that comes with his new position in the Nine Worlds. Can he even be considered “Ted” anymore, or is he the protector of Midgard?
And while the villains of the piece are indeed villains, they’re not without their own motivations as well. Both Hel and Thor suffer the effects of family dysfunction (albeit on a different scale than most), and if they are the bad guys here, it’s only by a matter of perspective. They’ve been hard done by their relatives, and sometimes hitting back seems the only option. As Ted and Tilda traverse bifröst, the bridge linking Midgard and Asgard, the many deities they come across prove that Norse mythology is nothing if not brimming with mother and father issues.
All this research would mean nothing if the story lacked focus, but Ginther layers his rejuvenated Nine Worlds with a crackling good narrative and action set pieces that practically cry out for a Guillermo del Toro adaptation (I’m seeing Josh Brolin as a good choice for Ted). The many skirmishes are clearly set and vividly drawn, with the added element of allowing Norse Gods to go all Roland Emmerich on Winnipeg. That may not bode well for its inhabitants, but it makes for explosively fine entertainment.
I’m already anticipating Ginther’s next (and presumably final) volume, in which I presume Ted will battle Odin for the right to rule the multiverse! Or maybe not. Either way, I’m in.