Icefall by Matthew Kirby
Last year I wrote this about Matthew Kirby’s novel The Clockwork Three:
“Amid the several highly anticipated children’s and YA works this year by big names such as Suzanne Collins and Rick Riordan, one can be forgiven for missing the entry onto the stage of Matthew Kirby’s first novel, The Clockwork Three. Forgiven, but no longer excused, for among all those much more hyped releases (though they are often justifiably hyped), this stands out as among the best. There. Now you know. You should get it.”
One might imagine, therefore, that Kirby’s second novel, Icefall, would have a difficult time matching the quality of the first. Darned if he didn’t just do it though. Before I’d even finished it, Icefall was already on my list of top ten children’s novels for 2011 and by the time I was done, as I suspected might happen, it made its way to my top ten fantasy novels in general. And fair warning to all those books coming out in the last few months: it’s going to be hard to knock Icefall out of either list. Now you know. You should get it.
According to its publisher, Icefall is a middle grade book, for ages 8-12. I can tell you my nine-year-old son loved it, devouring it in a single sitting. I’ll just point out, however, that I did the same (age 49) as did my wife (age 46). In other words, don’t let its targeted age group deter you from picking it up; Icefall is easily better than 95 percent of the fantasy novels I’ve read this year, in any age category. Easily.
The time period is ancient Norway and the only setting is a small fortress where a Viking king has sent his three children (Harald the young prince; Asa, the beautiful older daughter; and Solveig, the plain-looking overlooked middle child) for safety before he heads off to battle a rival warlord. Along with them are Per, head of a small group of soldiers; Bera, their cook; Raudi, Bera’s son and Solveig’s childhood friend; and Ole, a thrall captured in battle years ago and now sworn to the king. Stuck between the glacier-topped mountains and the icy fjord that leads to the keep, with winter nearing, they look every day for news of their father’s hoped-for victory. Instead, just before the fjord freezes completely and confines them there for the winter, a single ship arrives bearing the king’s skald Alric and a select group of Berserker warriors, led by their Captain, Hake. They have been ordered there by the king as further protection.
Soon, though, the fortress is beset by mysterious misfortunes, and it eventually becomes clear that there is a traitor among them, one who will stop at nothing to weaken and/or kill them. Trapped by geography and weather, stalked by hunger, death, and perhaps the worst enemy of all — mistrust of each other — they must make it through the winter and hope that when the fjord is free of ice, it will be the king’s warships and not his rival’s that greet them.
Like The Clockwork Three, Icefall is wonderfully tight. I wouldn’t remove a single chapter and doubt I’d take out many single sentences or even words. This alone is nearly enough to make me weep in appreciation, as this seems to be a rapidly disappearing concept, this idea of using exactly as many words are needed and no more. When I’m consistently writing in review after review how many hundreds of pages could and should be removed from a novel to improve it, Kirby’s concision and efficiency is like an oasis in an ocean of sandy verbiage. The prose is sparse but lyrical, as when he very early on describes an overcast sky as looking “like a burnt log in the morning hearth, cold, spent, and ashen” which not only describes the visual, but sets the mood for the entire book to come. He also has a nice sense of rhythm and space:
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.
The novel has an dual structure, employing an alternate chapter construction. The longer chapters relate ongoing events from Solveig’s first-person present-tense point of view. The shorter chapters are tiny flashbacks, also from Solveig’s POV but told in the past tense. These vignettes (rarely more than a single page) often focus on her relationship with one of the other characters. One such chapter, for example, relates how her sister consoled her one night when she was miserable, another tells of the shame she felt when her father seemingly forgot about introducing her to someone. In a really masterful touch, the vignettes also move forward in time, until two-thirds of the way through they mesh with the present time and are dropped altogether. Complicating the structure, adding a more subtle third thread woven right into the action and dialog rather than separated out like the vignettes, are a series of Norse myths, some told by Alric and others by Solveig as she considers becoming Alric’s apprentice. The movement among these three different strands is quite fluid, with each strand typically resonating with the others in terms of theme, character, plot, or imagery. It is a deft piece of work.
Along with emphasizing themes or character, the interruptions serve another purpose: they allow for the slow build-up of suspense as the traitor performs one attack after another, each more damaging than the last and as mistrust gradually seeps like its own poison into the fortress. The setting enhances this feeling throughout — the claustrophobia of such a small, single setting, the frozen landscape, the harsh weather and cold light, the haunting groans and moans of the glacier above them. It’s almost an old country house murder kind of story — the lights go out in an isolated mansion, someone dies, the lights come back on, and the survivors are left looking at each other wondering “Which one is it — you? You? You?” It’s worse than that, though, for this is no group of strangers but people who have known and trusted, and even loved, each other for years if not their entire lives. Seeing this from young Solveig’s eyes makes this even more wrenching, for where is she to cast her own suspicion: the woman who raised her as if she were her own child? Her childhood best friend? Her sister? The captain who was trusted so much by her father that he was sent to watch over his entire line? Kirby dangles enough clues that one can figure out the traitor, but he also drops enough red herrings that it’s easy to get the traitor wrong. The truth is, you suspect several throughout.
As readers, each of these characters is drawn so fully, even if extremely concisely, that we not only feel Solveig’s pain that one might be — must be —a traitor, we don’t want it to be true ourselves. Solveig is clearly the most detailed character, but Kirby does an excellent job of bringing most of the others to life as well despite their lack of page-time. This is especially true of Hake the Berserker captain and Alric the skald. But Solveig simply shines; this is her coming of age story, her slow blossoming that makes us care so much what happens, her voice that carries us throughout.
And it is literally her voice that she must find as she trains to become a skald under Alric’s tutelage. Not only is this a brilliant metaphor for the coming-of-age story, it also allows Kirby to examine the nature and power of stories and storytelling itself. As when Alric tells Solveig:
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… My tale last night. Did it comfort you?
And was the comfort real? Was it true?
I thought it was.
Then the story was true… whether Thor’s chariot is really pulled by two bucks or not.
Icefall’s conclusion is as emotionally harrowing as it is suspenseful and action-filled. How does Solveig’s story end? Like all life stories. In happiness. In sorrow. In triumph. In grief. In joy. In bitterness.
In two books, Matthew Kirby has, in my mind, cemented himself as one of the best fantasy writers going today. And I’d be perfectly fine if someone wanted to take out the “fantasy” part of that description. A complicated, sophisticated structure. Vivid characterization. Gripping tension and suspense. A story about the power of story. Prose that glitters like ice. A main character whose painful awakening out of innocence would melt the heart of the coldest glacier and whose self-discovery is like the coming of spring after winter. This book should be on everybody’s top ten fantasies list by the end of the year. It should be in your hands before then.
Here’s what my nine-year-old son Kaidan had to say about Icefall:
“I would give Icefall five stars or a 95 out of 100. I liked the plot, the suspense, all the characters (especially Hake). I ranked it my third favorite out of the 68 books I read in the past year. It was really suspenseful. I wanted to know what happened, if Solveig’s dream was going to come true, would the evil come, and especially who the traitor was. I suspected several different characters, including Ole, Per, and Asa, but I was never sure. My favorite scene was the conclusion. I did think it began a little slowly and I could have done without all of the myth stories — I thought there were a few too many — but overall Icefall was the best book I’ve read in a long time.”
And how I fear that day, for I know that when I look into my betrayer’s face, I will see someone I thought I knew. And I will still love them.
A Nordic king has gone to war. To protect his three children while he is away, he has sent them, with a small household, to a remote steading. Later, just before the fjord freezes over and shuts the steading in for the winter, he sends reinforcements: a force of berserkers who exist uneasily alongside the others who dwell there.
Our heroine is Solveig, the middle child of the king. Her beautiful older sister Asa will bring a great alliance when she marries. Her younger brother Harald will be a warrior and become king one day. Solveig, plain and seemingly unremarkable, feels overlooked by her father. She is, however, a talented storyteller, and the king’s skald, Alric, takes her under his wing and begins teaching her the art. This training provides much thought-provoking debate on the power of stories and the role of a skald, and as Icefall progresses, Solveig wonders if she will need to challenge Alric’s teachings in order to be true to herself.
For Solveig, and everyone else at the steading, is in mortal danger. The group is now shut in by the ice, and a traitor lurks in their midst. Matthew J. Kirby perfectly creates an unbearable tension. Murder and sabotage stalk the hall. Everyone suspects everyone else, even their own loved ones. Food is scarce, and the only thing that alleviates the food insecurity is when people die, leaving more for the others — food that is now salted with guilt. And as terrifying as the winter is, Solveig has had a nightmare that seems to predict even worse disaster when the spring thaw comes. Intertwined with the main narrative are flashbacks in which Solveig tells anecdotes from her past, reminiscences that tell us more about the characters — the suspects — and why they are so dear to her heart.
The characters are well-drawn. Solveig has a fantastic coming-of-age journey, beginning as an insecure girl and becoming a heroine worthy of legend. I also can’t go without mentioning Hake, captain of the berserkers: gruff and dangerous, but with layers upon layers of depth beneath the surface. Every major character is complex. Even characters who do despicable things are portrayed in three dimensions and have realistic motives for what they do, and realistic weaknesses. They may be the villains of Solveig’s story, but they see themselves as the heroes of their own — an idea that Alric touches upon in his teaching.
All of this great storytelling and characterization is enhanced even more by beautiful writing. Kirby has a great ear for metaphor: All of the sky looks like a burnt log in the morning hearth, cold, spent, and ashen. There’s a good rhythm to the prose, too, making it feel like a story Solveig is telling us by the fire.
I very nearly missed out on Icefall twice. I received an ARC last year, but was swamped and knew Bill was a Kirby fan and passed it along to him, and then after reading his stellar review, selfishly wished I’d held on to it! Then, recently, I checked it out from the library, but kept not getting around to it, until I got an overdue notice and decided to hurry up and read it before I took it back. I’m so very, very glad I did. Don’t make my mistake, people — don’t put off reading this book. Icefall is stunningly good.
My daughter and I really enjoyed the Scholastic Audio edition of Icefall. Jenna Lamia, the narrator, is very convincing in the role of Solveig.