by Lester del Rey
originally published in the December 1950 issue of Fantastic Adventures magazine as When the World Tottered, and reprinted in hardcover by Avalon Books / Thomas Bouregy and Company in February 1959. Reviewed from the Airmont Publishing Company Inc. paperback, circa March 1964.
It’s always a little dangerous to go about buying books based strictly upon the merits of their covers, but what self-respecting pulp fiction fan could possibly pass up this, with its promises of amorphous gargantuan city-stompers, fleets of flying saucers, and silhouetted acts of chivalry? I certainly couldn’t, even with my backbrain veritably screaming that it couldn’t all be true. It wasn’t, of course, though thankfully that isn’t enough keep Lester del Rey’s Day of the Giants from delivering a fine afternoon-worth of escapism.
Albeit labelled “A Science-Fiction Classic” this is more a fantasy with sci-fi trappings than any kind of pure example of the genre, and the front blurb promising a “Final battle between the Norse gods and the Giants!” is infinitely more accurate than the cover art.
The tale begins with a world in turmoil, in which the sudden ushering in of a new ice age sees cities descending into anarchy and citizens battling one another for the remaining spoils. Superstitions run wild, and reports of angel sightings rule the news. In the midst of the inexplicable cataclysm and mystical weirdness Midwesterner Leif Svensen makes a bid for survival on his rural farm, even as his once-neighbors coalesce into a lynch mob hell-bent on killing his faithful pooch Rex, unjustly pinned for a spate of local wolf attacks, and possibly him as well. Complicating matters are Leif’s thrill-seeking war hero twin brother Lee, who claims to have once seen an angel himself, and the arrival of a grisled stranger of questionable origin.
Introduction are slight here, but no matter. As soon as readers are given a taste for the characters del Rey launches headlong into the action, pitting the four (dog included) in a losing battle against a malignant local horde that leaves countless nameless citizenry dead and both Leif and Lee gravely wounded. Fortunately for them divine providence is right around the corner. As the twins lay dying several Valkeries (the angels spotted earlier) descend from the sky on horesback to whisk them away from the mortal world of Midgard and across the rainbow Bifrost to Asgard – the world of the gods. There the brothers’ find their life renewed, though not without purpose. Loki (the grisled man, now revealed to be a god himself) leads the pair to a council with Odin, at which their destinies are secured. The catastrophe threatening Earth is no less than the foretold Fimbulwinter, precursor to Ragnarok, and Odin has called Leif and Lee to fight alongside him in Asgard’s final battle against the fearsome giants of Jotenheim!
Though low on artistic pretensions (del Rey was, after all, an author reported to once have said “Get out of my ghetto” in reaction to academic ingress into his beloved genre) Day of the Giants is sky-high on the escapism meter, and if nothing else offers one of the best wish-fulfillment scenarios I’ve heard to date. Though presenting with no especially heroic ambitions at the outset, humble Leif soon finds himself not only fighting for the future of the Universe (a fight he takes to zealously, concocting such modern arms as grenades, exploding arrows, bazookas and atomic bombs (!) for the gods’ fighting forces), but weeding out a plot of godly usurpation and courting the affections of the beautiful goddess Fulla as well. Even his skills as a farmer are put to grand use in Asgard, where he uses his know-how to revive the ailing tree that provides the gods their golden apples of power and immortality. Odin is so pleased with his progress that he makes the mortal a god (!!), changing his name from Svensen to Odinsson and allowing him to feast upon the golden apples, that he might cultivate his godly powers! Who could ask for more?
Being mercifully short, Day of the Giants maintains a high level of action while outright ignoring anything inessential to its single narrative thread. The downside to this is the underdevelopment of some aspects of the story, most notably that of the treacherous plot to overthrow Odin. That said, it’s difficult for me to fault del Rey for neglecting that sort of thing when he otherwise loads the tale with such terrific action setpieces as the recovery of the sword of Freyr from Jotunheim, Leif riding to battle on a bladed chariot lead by two massive armored goats, and Fulla using the flying horse Hoof-Tosser (Hófvarpnir, the closest we get to the flying saucers on the cover) to bomb the encroaching giant horde with atomic grenades. Those hoping for deep characterization and substantive discourse will be out of luck with Day of the Giants, but if it’s pure ridiculous mythology-fueled heroics you’re in the mind for then del Rey definitely has you covered.
And I think that’s as far as I’ll allow this review to go, lest I betray the good-fun intention of the thing and begin to take it too seriously – it just wouldn’t do to have del Rey rolling in his grave after he’s entertained me so greatly. Day of the Giants may be the literary equivalent of the cool, saccharine stuffs that see us through the haze of Summer (it’s 128 pages of shave ice, sundae, and root beer float with a heaping helping of Mjölnir on top), but as I see it that’s no insult. This makes for perfectly outlandish company on a toasty late-June afternoon, and comes well recommended.
Lester del Rey’s Day of the Giants is available in multiple editions, though the cheapest and most readily accessible may be the 1964 paperback from which I read.