Author: Matthew J. Kirby
Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Publication date: October 11 2011
Hardcover: 336 pages
Matthew J. Kirby, author of The Clockwork Three, deftly weaves a brand-new tale with chilling cleverness and subtle suspense that will leave readers racing breathlessly to the end.
Trapped in a hidden fortress tucked between towering mountains and a frozen sea, Solveig, along with her brother the crown prince, their older sister, and an army of restless warriors, anxiously awaits news of her father’s victory at battle. But as winter stretches on, and the unending ice refuses to break, terrible acts of treachery soon make it clear that a traitor lurks in their midst. A malevolent air begins to seep through the fortress walls, and a smothering claustrophobia slowly turns these prisoners of winter against one another.
Those charged with protecting the king’s children are all suspect, and the siblings must choose their allies wisely. But who can be trusted so far from their father’s watchful eye? Can Solveig and her siblings survive the long winter months and expose the traitor before he succeeds in destroying a kingdom?.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did we get this book: Review copies from the publisher via BEA
Why did we read this book: This book has Ana and Thea written all over it – a fantasy novel that embraces the art of storytelling and norse mythology? AND featuring a taut historical equivalent of a cabin thriller? OF COURSE we were all over this book.
Thea: When I started Icefall, I expected an engaging YA fantasy novel – I certainly was not expecting to be so enthralled by this beautiful, breathtaking, elegiac tale. A fable of family, loyalty, honor; a story about the strength of truth; a lovingly crafted ode to the craft of storytelling – Icefall is all of these things. In the shortest, plainest terms, I loved this book.
Ana: Icefall was not at all what I expected – the cover is quite misleading, I thought, promising the grandeur of a Fantasy setting whilst in reality the setting has very few Fantasy trappings and the story itself is of the quiet, slow kind – the kind that slowly yet surely shows its true face: it began like any other YA novel only to end as one of the strongest stories I read this year. I too, loved this book.
On the Plot:
Thea: The second daughter of a great King, Solveig has always felt overlooked, forgotten, and insignificant. Her eldest sister Asa is so beautiful, with her hair like gold and skin like cream, that a war is started for her hand. Her younger brother Harald is strong and brave, and all know that he will make another great King when their father’s time has passed. But quiet, meek Solveig is neither beautiful nor strong; she is merely Solveig. When a great war is waged between the king his a rival warlord Gunnlaug, Solveig, Asa and Harald are sent to a remote fjord with a group of the king’s most trusted warriors – guard and berserker alike – to stay out the duration of the war. As the weeks pass and the fjord freezes over, the group settles in for the winter, isolated and supposedly safe…until they find a pair of footprints they cannot account for in the snow. First there is doubt, then there is poison. Soon it becomes clear to the group that there is a traitor in their midst – and only the quiet, observant Solveig can find the truth.
Icefall, the second novel from Matthew J. Kirby, is an utterly fantastic, enthralling feat of storytelling. At first glance, it’s a story about a group of people snowed in for the winter with a traitor in their midst. On another level, it is a tale about a royal family and a shy, overlooked girl coming into her own and learning that she is so much more than anyone believes. On yet another level, Icefall is Scheherazadian – a story within a story; memories woven together to make a larger, heartbreaking tapestry. What can I say about this book to convey my awe and love for its telling? I loved the integration of Norse mythology from the rich oral history tradition of skalds to the awe-inspiring and terrifying power wielded by berserker warriors. Most of all, I loved the writing. Take for example the truths about storytelling:
A story is not a thing. A story is an act. It only exists in the brief moment of its telling. The question you must ask is what a story has the power to do. The truth of something you do is very different from the truth of something you know.
Until now, I thought only of what stories could do in their moment. I was the ploughman, turning the hearts of my audience like soil, thinking I could bend the earth to my will. But stories have a quieter and more subtle power than that. Now I see that I am also the ploughman’s wife walking behind him, dropping seeds into the earth, leaving them to grow in meaning. I realize that every story I have ever heard is a part of me, deeply rooted, whispering behind my thoughts.
What else can I say? I do not want to give away more because Icefall is a lush, stark beauty of a book, written in the style of Marillier and Shinn. I loved the mystery element of the novel (which I think comes to a fitting, if sad end). I loved the relationships and characters. But more on that in a bit.
Ana: Yes, yes what Thea said. I loved everything about it: its several layers of storytelling, the different aspects of the tale (part-mystery, part-coming of age, part something else altogether), the characters and the writing itself.
To me, the greatest strength of Icefall lies equally on its quietness and on how it combines beautifully the threads of a mystery novel with a coming of age tale. The former comes from Solveig herself, the type of person she is and how her quiet personality surfaces in her own narrative. Even though the plot of the novel speaks of horrible, wondrous things like treason and murder, her narrative conveys those almost in a subdued way that is all the more powerful for all the emotional punches that hides beneath. I also loved how unpredictable the mystery was – at one point I suspected everybody and when the final revelation came, I felt it was believable.
For all its quietness though, when the story reaches its climax, it is out-of-this-world awesome – it is when the story turns truly epic, as though the characters have become the creatures of legend themselves. Given how Solveig’s story is also about the power of words, the power of storytelling, this was not only fitting but also extremely cool.
On the Characters:
Ana: The characters are so well developed, the vast majority of them has depth as the days pass in their confinement, the more we learn about them and the more I grew to love them all as characters (even if I didn’t exactly love them as people) because of their weakness and strengths. I loved the relationships between Solveig and her close family and friends as well as the budding relationship with Alric, the skald and Hake, the beserker (I might or might not have lost my heart forever somewhere between the two).
Heck, even the animals had distinct personalities and this is no small feat. Yes, Hilda the Goat and Munnin the Raven, I am looking at you.
But of course, the greatest character is Solveig and this is her coming of age. Every step she takes toward being her own person is a step that comes with potential heartbreak. Every single action comes with deciding to act even as these decisions are not made lightly.
Do you know what I loved the best about Solveig and her arc? That, she is a female character with agency even though for all intents and purposes, as a female character in this particular historical context, she feels she has none. I love how Matthew Kirby explores the possibility of a girl wanting more, expecting more and achieving more when nothing is expected from her and all within the realm of believability. And to me, speaks volumes about this author’s talent.
Thea: Ahh, the characters! I LOVED Solveig so so so much. More than anything else, Icefall is Solveig’s book, as the mild mannered sister chooses to become a skald, and discovers the deep strength that lies within. In fact, Solveig might be one of my favorite literary heroines of the year because of the very reasons that Ana mentions – despite everything to the contrary, Solveig finds a new path in a world where it seems women have no options. This is an interesting juxtaposition with the tragic elder sister Asa, who, with all her beauty and grace is coveted and trapped by duty, yet finds a different way to make choices for her life. As Asa comes to accept her own strength, she faces her greatest and most daunting challenge – her father. This tense relationship defines so much of Solveig’s character, so when she finally finds her voice it so deeply moving.
Beyond Solveig, I loved the depth and nuance to all the characters, from the young and brave Harald who so yearns to be strong enough to protect his family and live up to his father’s example, to the burgeoning warrior Raudi who is trapped between being a boy and a man. I loved Alric the skald, with his gilded tongue and ability to use stories to inspire and change, but most of all I loved Hake, the captain of the berserker army – an unexpected friend and loyal heart to the end.
Even the villains of the piece are treated as honest characters with understandable intentions, which is no small feat. Like Ana, I am completely convinced of Mr. Kirby’s talent as an author and a storyteller with this expertly crafted tale.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Ana: Icefall was an unexpected surprise. I loved this book and it is definitely a notable read of 2011. Plus, as soon as I finished it, I went and bought this author’s first book The Clockwork Three.
Thea: I adored this quiet, beautiful book from beginning to end and cannot wait to read more from Matthew J. Kirby. Easily one of my notable reads of 2011 – if not in my top 10 favorites of the year.
The fjord is freezing over. I watch it from the edge of the cliff near our hall, and each day the ice claims more of the narrow winding of ocean. It squeezes out the waves and the blue-black water, while it squeezes us in. Just as Father intended it to. Winter is here to wall us up, to bury us in snow and keep us safe.
Today, there is a cold wind that bears no other smell but the ghostly scent of frost. I feel it through my furs and woolen dress, down to my skin. My younger brother, Harald, stands beside me, watching the cloud of his own breath.
“Do you think they will come today, Solveig?” he asks me.
“They will arrive soon,” I say. “Father said they would.”
“I hope so.” He turns to walk off. “The larder is nearly empty.” And he whistles. Harald is a stubborn, willful child, full of confidence and mischief. He reaches the earthen walls that surround our hall, and the warriors who guard the entrance bow to him. He stops to talk with them, and I can see in their affectionate smiles that they love him even now, their future lord. He will make a strong warrior, and a fine king one day, so long as Father still has a kingdom to pass on.
All of the sky looks like a burnt log in the morning hearth, cold, spent, and ashen. Harald is right. I have noticed our helpings at the supper bench getting smaller, how Bera does not cook so great a quantity as she always did at home in Father’s hall. We didn’t bring enough provisions with us to last a whole winter here. But there was so little time for preparation before Father sent us away and went to war. He promised a boatload of food, clothing, and blankets, but we have seen no ship.
And none today.
And the fjord is freezing over.
You can download the first chapter HERE.
Thea:8 – Excellent, verging on a 9
Ana: 8 – Excellent
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