Thursday, January 5, 2012

Fantasy Pick: Icefall (Guest Reviewer Leslie Rush)

by Matthew J. Kirby
336 pages

This is a guest review from ya novels lover and avid reader and my BFF Leslie Rush. Leslie is a high school teacher and my muse/reader of my own attempts at ya fiction.

Icefall takes place in Scandinavia during the Dark Ages. It is a time of brutal warfare and deprivation, but also a time of rich culture and mythology-- both of which drive this coming-of-age tale of survival, betrayal, and the true meaning of loyalty.

Solveig is the middle child of a warrior king. She has neither the ethereal beauty of her older sister Asa, nor the importance of her younger brother and heir to the throne, Harald and has spent her life being invisible to her father. The children have been sent to a remote fortress on the edge of a fiord, nestled below an enormous glacier, while their father battles another warrior king whose marriage proposal to Asa has been refused. The royal children are surrounded by a loyal staff, and early in the story a company of berserkers arrives, sent by the king to defend the fortress if necessary.

Solveig and the staff—-Bera the cook, her son and Soveig’s friend Raudi, Per the young soldier, Ole the thrall (slave) and Alric the storyteller-- are all wary and anxious about the berserkers, whose terrifying violence is legendary. They are led by Hake, the biggest and most terrifying of them all. An early act of violence and loss committed by Hake makes him unbearable to Solveig.

As winter deepens, several acts of sabotage and murder make it apparent that there is a traitor in their midst. Solveig has no idea who to trust and everyone is suspect. She has a repeating nightmare that foretells of disaster and death when spring comes, adding to her uneasiness.

While the anxiety and suspicions build in the fortress, Solveig is discovering her own hidden talent as a storyteller--a skald--and she begins training with Alric in the art of telling the great tales of Norse mythology and the hero’s saga. Her confidence builds as her skills improve, and all of her companions, even Hake, see her gift. Then, her father’s enemies arrive and they all must not only survive, but fight against impossible odds.

Solveig’s growing relationship with Hake, her genuine power as a skald, and the bravery she finds deep within herself all determine the surprising and heart-stopping acts of loyalty that conclude this novel.

The cover art shows one scene from the story, but is woefully inadequate and not representative of the story. The back cover is all reviews of Kirby’s previous book, and says nothing about Icefall. Because of that, this wonderful tale will probably be skipped over by many who would love this story.

The publisher’s classifications include fantasy and sci-fi, and although lovers of those genres will like this book, it has neither fantasy nor sci-fi in it. It is solid historic fiction. Kirby writes with powerful imagery. He describes the beautiful and brutal the Norse winter so well, by the end of the first chapter I was both fascinated and freezing.

Recommended grades 4-up. The publisher says grades 3-8. Violence, but not too graphic. Light romance. No language or sex, although there is a vague sense of menace regarding Asa and her spurned bridegroom.

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