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Icefall

by Matthew J. Kirby
325 pages, Historical Fiction
Reviewed by Lily A.

An intriguing story of loyalty, betrayal, and self-discovery. Cautions: violence, polytheism.

Plot

Princess Solveig, her beautiful sister Asa, and her brother Harald, the heir, have been sent away from home to an isolated steading by a freezing fjord. Their father the king wants them safe while he makes war. But then a band of their father’s most valued warriors comes to join them, proving to Solveig that Father does not think they are safe, after all. And as time goes on, the folk in the steading are convinced that there is a traitor among them. Which of Father’s trusted followers would do them harm? And what can Solveig, the plain-looking second daughter, do to help her people?

Morality

The people here are not in a Christian culture, and all references to religion (which are frequent) are references to their own beliefs.

Loyalty to one’s friends, family, and countrymen is applauded. People who break trust and endanger others’ lives are punished severely.

A character who does not wish to kill out of sympathy for opponents’ families is held in high respect for this view by the person in whom he confides.

The characters’ society allows for the use of thralls, or slaves.

Lies are met with mixed approval. Untrue stories may be told as if true when used to inspire, but characters may have trouble trusting those who tell such tales for a living. Lies told to protect lives are seen as worthy, or at least acceptable. Lies are condemned when told to deceive and in situations where the information concealed would break trust or bring harm to others.

Some characters are encouraged to meet their potential as persons. Others are seen primarily in the light of their political and economical use to their people.

A recurring theme is the power of words, specifically stories, to influence how people think and feel.

Spiritual Content

The characters believe in the Norse gods, and tell stories of them to encourage, inspire, and entertain one another. How much the characters believe in their own stories varies from person to person. Characters also tell tales of “haugbui,” which are ghosts or undead, and of frost giants. Sometimes people in great distress or in preparation for battle pray to Odin. Berserkers are called “Odin’s men,” and ravens are “Odin’s birds.” A pet raven is named for one of Odin’s ravens, Munin. Wolves are compared to Fenrir, a dangerous mythical wolf entrapped by the gods with a magic chain. A character has a repeating dream which proves to be an omen. It is believed that men must be given a proper burial for their souls to have peace.

Violence

Everyone knows that a war is underway, although most of it happens out of sight of the main characters.

Men in the steading are prepared to fight to defend their ruler’s children if the enemy should come. Some brawling occurs among the warriors when they have been icebound for some time, and are agitated by various circumstances. Solveig recalls stories of what can go wrong when berserkers get bored.

A valued pet was slaughtered for meat, and another is injured. Livestock die. On a couple of occasions, characters are in danger of freezing. A number of characters are poisoned. Some die. Two people burn, and many drown. Many people are killed or wounded in a fight. A character has a frightening dream involving warships, dead men, a burning building, and a falling iceberg.

Stories are told about battles real and mythical in times past.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Solveig recalls a guest getting drunk at her father’s table.

Sexual Content

Who a woman of noble birth may or may not marry is an issue of political import. A warrior makes a crude remark to a young lady, which is not shared with the reader, and is punished for it. Another man says he would fight for someone attractive — implied, he would fight for a chance to be with her. There is a chance that a girl may be harmed by a man who is attracted to her. Some people are concerned that a girl and the man she likes may have been behaving inappropriately. One story told involves a god cross-dressing to disguise himself as the bride at a wedding feast.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

Someone makes a crude comment which is not written. A man humiliates someone by making them eat off the floor. There may be more, but this is what I can remember from having read recently.

Conclusion

For me, Icefall’s primary entertainment value was in the setting and the characterization. This is the first time I have read historical fiction set in a Nordic community, and I enjoyed the sporadic myth-telling — some tales familiar to me, and some new — the spattering of fresh words and terms, and the descriptions of the winter landscape and the longboat drawn up on the shore. Characters are not static. Seemingly trustworthy people may be corrupted by private motives, or have their own interpretation of how it is right to treat their fellows. Harsh, brash people may prove to be more reliable and tender than you thought at first. I also loved the thoughtful narration by Solveig, with her self-doubt, her hopes and her fears, and her keen observation of the people in the small snowbound community around her. Each chapter opens with Solveig sharing a memory about one of her companions, and it is not until well into the story that the reader suddenly discovers who she is speaking to, and why.

There are caveats to this story. The spirituality is understandably unbiblical, given the place and time. There is violent content, both in overview, and at the close personal level. While I think that this was subverted by the end, at first it seems like the value of the ranking women present is based, in their own eyes and those of their people, primarily on the beauty or lack of beauty of their bodies. But Icefall is an intelligent and fairly enjoyable read, all in all.

Fun Score: 4.5
Values Score: 3
Written for Age: 11-12

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