Review by: KEN KORCZAK
The science of archaeology is often leveraged by fiction writers because it lends itself so well to a premise involving travel to an exotic far-off land where the characters can encounter strange people, breathtaking landscapes and brave harsh conditions as they strive to unlock some tantalizing mystery of the past.
ODE TO ODIN is no exception as it incorporates all of these elements, and it does so brilliantly. Author BRUCE MCLAREN regales us with visceral and vibrant descriptions of the brutal but beautiful deserts of Central Asia. He smacks us in face with furnace arid winds and makes us feel a scorching sun lashing our backs while bloodthirsty insects sting and suck our blood. Yet, at the same time, he evokes the aching loveliness of the landscape and imparts to us the thrill of what it must be like to explore an alien landscape harboring strange wonders and awe inspiring vistas.
That’s great, but you know what? This guy’s power of description is not what I liked best about this novel. What made this an almost insanely fun read is the author’s take on human nature. This is a an acid-dripping, go-for-the jugular cynicism that exposes certain people for what they really are — petty, ego-driven, neurotic posers who care for nothing but their own pleasures and bald-faced pursuits of power, money, food, sex and alcohol.
But just as McLaren demonstrates the beautiful/harsh dualism of Mother Nature, he also exposes the dualistic nature of the human psyche. Yes, some characters in this story are debauched and cruel but others show empathy, caring and a capacity to love deeply.
I’m probably making this sound like a work of heavy-weight literature, but this is actually a pretty down-to-earth piece of writing that anyone can read as a popular lark of a novel. McLaren’s wizardry is that he makes a work of literary depth an easy read. Readers will eagerly turn pages — and that’s despite that fact that this book incorporates only a bare minimum of plot.
Rather, it follows the daily experience of a young, post-graduate who makes a rash decision to join the dig of a brilliant archaeologist who has long since fallen out of favor with the academic establishment . This is the titular Odin who has devolved into an outright pariah.
The viewpoint character never names himself. It’s through his eyes and thoughts that we experience what it’s like to spend three brutal months on an excavation in a remote region of Central Asia, in this case, the semi-autonomous nation of Karakalpakstan within Uzbekistan.
The dig has a lofty goal — to uncover the origins of the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, arguably the first monotheistic religion and a belief system based on a dualistic cosmology of good versus evil. To that end, the archaeologists are supervising the excavation of what they believe to be a Zoroastrian fire temple which has been buried beneath the sands of the Kyzyl Kum desert for untold centuries.
But as the title implies, the pivot point of the book revolves around the bombastic archaeological genius of Odin. He was once a rising star in academia and being groomed for a top professorship or perhaps even chair of the department for a major British university. Odin goes rogue early on in his career, however, opting to pursue his passion in his own highly eccentric and iconoclastic way.
Here again McLaren’s theme of dualism plays out in the demented psyche of Odin. He’s at once erudite, handsome, fantastically charming and brilliant while also completely bereft of human compassion and self restraint — he’s a debauched satyr, egomaniac and pursues his lusts for sex, power and booze with absolute absence of moral restriction.
Odin’s MO is always the same — he wins over people he wants to use and control with his irresistible, almost magical charisma — only to eventually utterly alienate all those unfortunate enough to fall under his powerful spell and throw in with his grand designs. When Odin is done with people, he kicks them to the curb like a contemptible piece of trash, and he does so without an ounce of remorse.
Yes, he’s loathsome — but oh-so-hilarious!
Whether by design or accident, McLaren leverages archaeology as a metaphor for personal self discovery. Just as the method of the archaeologist is to peel back the layers of history inch by inch by stripping away the soil one strata at a time — so does the narrator seem to dig into his own psyche one level at a time as he strives to find out who he is and the meaning of his own life, belief system, worldview, and so forth. It’s an ingenious way for a fictional character to work toward personal self discovery.
Finally, a depth of authenticity underpins this work of fiction because McLaren himself is the real thing. That is, he holds a doctorate in Middle Eastern Archaeology from the University of Sydney and has spent years out in the field conducting excavations. He’s well published in peer-reviewed journals. He has genuine insight into the real world of archaeology. This experience adds power and informs the results when he lets his hair down to write a colorful yarn featuring archaeologists as fictional players.
Oh, one final-final note: I want to mention that there’s a “shadow character” that looms in the background of just about every chapter of this book — that of ALEXANDER THE GREAT — but I’ve already gone on too long so I’ll just let readers discover that for themselves.
So Odin To Odin is one of the best of the 120 books I’ve read so-far this year — and there’s just a month to go in 2018.
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SEE ALSO MY REVIEWS OF SIMILAR TOPIC BOOKS:
A HISTORY OF PYRRHUS by Jacob C. Abbott
HUMPHREY, DUKE OF GLOUCESTER By Kenneth Vickers
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SIR WILLIAM HERSCHEL By Edward Singleton Holden
Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS
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