Runemarks 

Ragnarok and roll

Now that she's finished writing the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling has time to embark on a second career by opening a Young Adults Fantasy Writing School. I can just see the classified ad: "Earn Big Money! Never Teach a Class or Apply for a Grant Again!" Clearly many obscure but respectable mainstream writers would sign up.

One of the latest to dabble in the YA Fantasy realm is Joanne Harris, best-known for the novel Chocolat, which you may remember from its Oscar-nominated film adaptation from 2001. Harris' first book for young readers, Runemarks begins with an alienated 12-year-old girl with an aptitude for magic and builds to an apocalyptic struggle that puts the fate of the universe in the balance.

In Runemarks, Harris puts a fresh spin on Norse mythology by offering faithful but pointed portrayals of the likes of Thor the thunder god, Loki the trickster and the rest. Clearly she's done a lot of homework on the subject, giving readers an accessible crash course in magic symbols, or "runes." Young heroine Maddy Smith has one on her body that suspicious townsfolk call a "ruin mark." Set mostly in a pre-Industrial-Revolution village, Runemarks takes place in an alternate history in which the Norse Armageddon, or "Ragnarok," took place 500 years earlier. Maddy finds herself caught up in intrigue between the remnants of the Norse pantheon and a powerful faction called The Order, which resembles the authoritarian church in The Golden Compass.

Runemarks reads like the kind of book that sacrifices too much for the sake of its plot outline. More than 500 pages, it still feels rushed, with characterization swamped by exposition and incident. Virtually everything happens on the fly, and the scale goes from commonplace to cosmic so quickly, it's hard to feel like anything's really at stake. It's a near-miss, though, since Harris also displays obvious talent, imagination and flair for clever dialogue. To master telling fantasy stories for young readers, Harris would only need a few of Rowling's classes before graduating with honors.

Runemarks. Joanne Harris, Alfred A. Knopf. $21.99. 527 pp.

Joanne Harris will sign Runemarks Wed., Jan. 9, at 4 p.m. at the Little Shop of Stories and 6:30 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, Alpharetta.

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