The Monstrous Child by Francesca Simon is the story of Hel, the Norse Queen of the Dead.
We get the story of Hel’s life (up until Ragnarok) through her own eyes and with her own voice. The voice of the character is quite strong, but at time a bit too thick as well. Francesca Simon’s Hel is a bit sarcastic and a bit down on herself. That’s all well and good but it seems that the self-deprecating humour was used a little too often and ended up seeming to repeat the same points over and over again.
The story itself I also thought was a bit lacking. Part of the trouble of telling the story of Hel up until Ragnarok is that she can’t do anything. She’s not an active protagonist.
She’s banished and imprisoned in the realm of the dead.
The world ends.
If the story was shifted so that the end was near the beginning and we got to hear about what happened after this book (post-Ragnarok when Hel’s the only one left) then it could have been really interesting. But as it is I think that it suffers from the potential pitfall of any re-telling of a myth; we know what’s going to happen and the main character is locked into that narrative. I’m not saying that all re-tellings are bad as I have read and enjoyed some myself but I think that in this instance the voice of the character is what sets this apart from the myth.
But I don’t want to get bogged down in what might have made a good story. That way madness lies.
Another aspect of why I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I could have was the expectations I’d given myself before I started.
Looking at the cover as well as the quotations on it I was expecting something quite different. ‘Dark and very funny’ along with a gorgeous cover of a nebulous silhouette of a falling girl gave me the impression of a beautiful, kind of literary story with black comedy lacing the edges. Maybe the fact that I’m not the target audience came into play more than I thought it would but I didn’t think that the book was particularly dark, a bit grim and gross maybe but not overly dark.
Overall, those elements combined into a decent enough book but one that I didn’t really enjoy. I was expecting something else and the lack of agency in the protagonist didn’t help either. If you like mythical re-tellings then take a look at this book but just be forewarned that for the most part you’re going to be stuck in Hel with no way out.