“Hel is … a teen railing against circumstances she is powerless to change, petulant, angry, sulky and despairing”
The Monstrous Child is the first YA novel by Francesca Simon, author of the Horrid Henry books.
The ‘monstrous child’ of the title is Hel, daughter of Norse god Loki and a giantess mother. She’s born human baby from the waist up and stinking, rotting corpse from the waist down – but she’s drawn the long straw as far as her parent’s children are concerned; her brothers are a giant snake, a ferocious wolf and an eight-legged horse!
From the outset, Hel is full of hatred. Her mother loathes her, as do her brothers, and her father – when he turns up – can’t bear to look at her. It’s only when she’s kidnapped by Odin, father of the gods, and taken to Asgard where all the gods live, that things seem to be taking a turn for the better. Of course, this can’t last, and Hel is tossed down into the Niflheim, the underworld, to become queen of the dead. The only thing that sustains her is the possibility that one day she’ll be reunited with Baldr, the one person who has ever shown her any affection, but as he’s an immortal god, the likelihood of him ending up in her realm is less than slim.
The Monstrous Child is heavy on atmosphere and attitude and short on plot. Hel is a well-rounded character, a teen railing against circumstances she is powerless to change, petulant, angry, sulky and despairing. Hel has a great voice – in fact, I’d love to hear this done as an audio book. Try reading this bit aloud:
“You still with me? Good. Hang in there – it’s worth the journey. Just think of all those foolish mortals who try to unearth the secrets of the dead, and lucky you – you get them without risking your like sneaking down the World Tree before you days and deeds are finished.”
You’re right there with her, surrounded by the bright, warm beauty of Asgard – “If I cared about such things, I might have thought it was beautiful” says Hel in her best I-don’t-care voice, having just described the beauty of it. And by contrast, the desolate land of the dead – “Murky black. Mist. Ice. The stink of sulphur” – the place where she is trapped for all eternity. It’s beautifully done, marvellously atmospheric.
But. But. But.
There’s not enough happening here. I have to admit to flicking forward through the pages to see if there was going to be any action or if Hel was going to spend the rest of the book dragging herself around the underworld moaning or lying in her bed alternately dozing and whining. Something does eventually happen, but it’s low-key compared to the drama of the first couple of sections of the book and I felt it didn’t satisfy my expectations of the way a story is supposed to work. I assume this is because the story is sticking closely to the original Norse mythology, but I don’t know an awful lot about that.
Read it though. It’s a quick read and the Norse mythology is fascinating – note to self: must read more Norse mythology. You’ll love it for Hel’s voice and for the atmosphere.
More to Read!
There is loads of Norse mythology out there to find. I’m particularly excited to read Neil Gaiman’s new book Norse Mythology.
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