Readers might know that when it comes to niche podcasts, one of my favorite subjects is mythology–but until now, that niche felt filled by nonfiction podcasts only. Jarnsaxa Rising is the first audio drama I’ve heard that uses elements from mythology, here obviously pulling from the Norse stories, and its blend of these stories and a dystopian future are fantastic.
Jarnsaxa, a Norse giantess, seeks revenge on Thor, her lover and the father of her children. Over centuries, her contact with humans is limited. Season One shows her meeting with Agent Bachman and Dr. Aspinall, sent by the mysterious Hei Shui Corporation, in 2094. She introduces them to her cousin, Loki, and shows them The Nine Worlds and her struggle against the Aesir.
When she escapes to Arizona, she engages with the all-powerful energy corporation, and the displaced people who suffer and die from the corporation’s policies. This story travels gritty dystopian wastelands, supernatural paradise, and contemporary realms, to examine what we sustain and why.
In its writing, Jarnsaxa Rising feels meticulous. The world the audio drama is set in is a seamless mix of supernatural fantasy and dystopian sci-fi, landing somewhere between Saga, Ender’s Game, and often The Witch (2015). The comparison could be drawn between Jarnsaxa Rising and American Gods, of course; while the two have thematic and world similarities, though, Jarnsaxa Rising feels distinctly its own, not just through its dystopian features but also through its tone. Instead of setting the story in modern day and showing how the gods would be imagined in it to analyze the stories that have always driven us, as with American Gods, Jarnsaxa Rising combines the ancient with the futuristic to draw allegories to modern day to analyze what will sustain us.
The idea is persisent throughout the plot of the first season, which primarily follows Agent Bachman, an employee of the Hei Shui Corporation who’s recently been disgraced for, we’ll say, an HR scandal. When Agent Bachman is set out to investigate a wind farm in Finland, she sees the destruction the corporation has brought, and eventually becomes wrapped up in the dealings of Norse gods when she meets Loki. Her narrative weaves into the story of Jarnsaxa, the scorned lover of Thor who has devoted her existence to revenge. The drive and hunger for one specific purpose, regardless of the effects on the world or others, is hard to ignore.
The dialogue that drives the episode feels written with such care while not being overly precious or pretentious; writer Lindsay Harris Friel has an MFA in Playwriting, and these credentials show through each line. The lines written for the figures of Norse mythology have the poetry of language one would expect from them, following the tradition of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Loki and Thor without feeling lifted from those examples. Even with the archaic dialect, the lines still don’t feel over-written; they feel natural, the way that people of the dialect would actually speak versus a sense of pretentious beauty being shoved onto them. Meanwhile, the colloquialisms and ease of the modern characters’ lines feels just as cared for, but also just as natural. This is also, of course, helped by the performances, namely Ethan Bjelland’s Loki. Bjelland weaves together the writing with a delightfully cocky, lilting delivery that imbues each line with rolling eyes, batting lashes, or a terrifying glare.
I initially expected to have this meticulous dialogue and thereby lose the authentic rhythm I often prefer in audio dramas, but Jarnsaxa Rising easily proved me wrong. First, the inclusion of futuristic characters who speak with a modern-day rhythm and vernacular helps keel the very specific, heightened dialogue of the Norse figures grounded. The editing also helps here greatly: characters are allowed to speak over each other and actually cut each other off. The pacing of the lines, especially when it comes to the modern characters, has a lifelike flow that keeps everything immersive and believable, regardless of the high-concept nature of the show.
Jarnsaxa Rising works beautifully as an audio drama, given so much of the fantastical scenes would be next to impossible to produce on film, let alone on the stage; however, most of my frustrations with Jarnsaxa Rising do stem from typical troubles in the audio medium specifically. It’s very common in this show for actors’ mics to peak or plosives to pop, breaking immersion by reminding the audience that there is, in fact, a microphone involved. The qualities of the actors’ mics often varies, too. There are a few editing artifacts audible in some episodes, though these are less common.
Those complaints remain insignificant, though, compared to the quality of this audio drama as a whole. Jarnsaxa Rising is a fun, exciting, suspenseful listen that feels different in world and aesthetic from its contemporaries. It’s an ambitious project with a hefty payoff. Its first season can be listened to in full, and the first two episodes of the next season premier today. The first two episodes of the second season–without spoiling anything–already heighten the stakes and worldbuilding established in the first season. Make sure you get caught up in time for these new releases; this story isn’t one you’ll want to miss.
You can find Jarnsaxa Rising on any major podcatcher or on their website, which also includes transcripts for their episodes.