TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
In the interest of full disclosure, let me begin by saying that I never would've read Matthew Kirby's Nordic adventure "Icefall" were it not on the discussion list for my Book Fest Sleepers group. I don't do fantasy, which is immediately how I pegged "Icefall," based on its glowing glacier / magic hammer cover. My bad, Scholastic. My bad. "Icefall" is a rousing, action-packed tale of — get this! — historical fiction set in Viking times. This is not a fantasy story. At all. And before you run screaming in the opposite direction, please let me add that historical fiction is not one of my faves, either. But "Icefall" works in a genre-busting, hey, this is just a great story kind of way.
Plain middle sister Solveig, younger brother Harald, and gorgeous older sister Asa are sent by their father, the King, to a frozen fjord for the winter. The King hopes to keep his heir, Harald, and his other children hidden and safe from a rampaging foe, Gunnlaug. A trusted young soldier, Per, accompanies them on the trip, as does long-time slave Ole and household servants (and mother and son) Bera and Raudi. Before the inlet freezes completely, a warship full of berserkers — think giant, fierce warriors in bearskins! — arrives, sent by the King in a last gasp effort to defend his children against Gunnlaug's forces.
As winter surrounds and covers them, Solveig and her siblings adjust to their icy, isolated home. Brokenhearted Asa mostly stays in bed and steals furtive glances at Per, while young Harald bravely tries to buck up and grow into the man everyone demands he become. Solveig becomes a sort of apprentice to Alric, the skald (storyteller) who accompanied the berserkers to the fjord. Alric teaches Solveig the power of mythmaking, and observant, sensitive Solveig — long overlooked by her father for these very traits — displays a natural talent for weaving tales around the evening hearth fire.
When a traitor emerges in the group (the few cows are slaughtered, berserkers are poisoned and killed), the hungry, frightened occupants of this far-removed world begin to turn against each other. I loved how the claustrophobic setting and thickening suspicion heighten the suspense as the story progresses. Very well done! When Gunnlaug's marauders arrive in early spring, the survivors have been weakened by fear and illness, making them easy prey. Solveig then must use every bit of her ingenuity and skill to keep her clan together and find a means of escaping Gunnlaug's clutches.
Along the way, we learn much about ancient Norse belief systems, including death rituals, runes, ravens, and such gods as Odin and Thor, whose hammer figures prominently in the story (and on the book's cover!). We are also treated to the complex, touching relationship that develops between Solveig and Hake, the fearsome leader of the berserkers, in which love, loyalty, and sacrifice are all richly presented. And while the climactic scene is telegraphed long in advance — again, the book cover! — it does nothing to undermine its dramatic heft.
I was truly blown away by how much I enjoyed "Icefall." It's a perfect novel for middle grade readers (boys *and* girls) who are looking for an exciting story full of intrigue, action, and even mythology from a long-ago era. Its icy setting, amazingly dimensional characters, and well-integrated themes of courage and faith only enrich the experience. While the book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, enough plot threads are resolved to provide a satisfying conclusion.
PS – I can't leave this review without mentioning author Kirby's technique of inserting snippets from one of Solveig's stories throughout the novel. When we finally realize why Solveig is reciting this particular story to her surviving clan members, her actions resonate more powerfully. It's a wonderful device to introduce portions of each character's history, and, as importantly, to fully capture the emotional bonds Solveig has forged with each of them. Brilliant.
PPS – "Icefall" is out now. READ IT!