I’ve never been a big science fiction reader, and so it took me far too long to get around to reading Kirsten Imani Kasai’s Ice Song. Its beautiful cover would draw my eye again and again in the bookstore, then I’d flip it over to read the back cover copy and think, “Oh. Submarines. Mutations. This is that science fiction book again.” Now that I’ve read it, I wish the blurb had contained one brief sentence that would have had me snapping up the book right away: This is a fairy tale.
Sure, the setting is an environmentally ravaged future, and the part-human, part-animal beings who populate it are made that way by mutation rather than by sorcery, but make no mistake: this is a fairy tale. Just as the key to Sorykah’s quest is hidden within a fairy tale told to her along the way, I believe that the key to enjoying Ice Song lies in approaching it as a fairy tale.
Sorykah does work on an ice-drilling submarine, but we’re not very far into the story when she leaves her job and everything else behind; her twin babies have been kidnapped by a sinister madman and Sorykah must go rescue them. Like the heroines of such stories as “East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon” and “The Snow Queen,” Sorykah sets out into the wilds to find her loved ones, with only her dogged determination and the often-quirky help of a few strangers on her side.
Oh, and there’s one more problem. Sorykah is a Trader, which means she occasionally switches genders and becomes a man named Soryk. Some Traders can switch easily and at will, but for Sorykah, the change is usually brought about by intense stress, and she and Soryk have separate memories. Kasai skillfully made me feel empathy for both Sorykah, who identifies strongly as a woman and also fears losing control to Soryk and thereby losing time on this important mission; and Soryk, who has been so long suppressed that he has only a few scattered memories that don’t fit together in any logical way. And no matter which body Sorykah is wearing, her secret puts her in danger. Traders — like the animal/human hybrids known as somatics — are at best treated as second-class citizens, and at worst subjected to scientific or sexual exploitation.
On her journey, Sorykah meets a motley collection of characters, both human and somatic, who help or hinder her along the way. It turns out most of them are connected, having had their lives shattered by several generations of a ruthless family that includes Matuk the Collector, the man who has taken Sorykah’s children. Sorykah, while on her own mission, has stumbled into a web of old grudges and sorrows. Her interactions with these other characters follow a fairy tale structure: she meets someone, receives some cryptic advice and is told where to go next, and so on. Some characters are introduced but then don’t turn out to be relevant to the story as a whole, though I suspect some of them may be threads to be picked back up in the sequel, Tattoo.
The most unexpected twist, after the reader follows Sorykah through the frigid wasteland for some time, is a detour to a sensual, corrupt paradise. The incongruous nature of this detour makes sense in fairy tale logic, and it also shows us another side of Matuk’s coin; while Matuk uses science as an excuse for his depredations, the ruler of this island uses sex. This sequence is uncomfortable, though, because the lush descriptions of these scenes make the reader feel (or at least made me feel) at least partially complicit in the exploitation of Sorykah — which may well have been Kasai’s intent. This island may look like paradise, but it’s really another kind of hell.
Overall, Ice Song is unique, striking, often disturbing (Matuk is a horrible man), and always emotionally moving. I savored the prose, too, which is evocative and dreamlike as befits a story that feels so much like a fairy tale despite its futuristic setting:
- The noise of the ocean penned in by the icy harbor was terrific. Ice groaned, squeaked, and bellowed. Water droplets froze in midair and fell toward the wooden pier, bouncing upon its snowy crust like scattered, shining stones. Nearer the surface, one long sheet of ice groaned deep within its white skin, a sound like a woman birthing, or so it seemed to Sorykah, still sentimental from the memory of her own children’s birth but a lunar skein behind.
- Bare feet noiseless against the still-warm path, Sorykah crept catlike toward the manor. She imagined how the sun would soak into the courtyard, how the heavy-headed rosebushes would droop in the heat, cicada song circling as lazy, pollen-drunk honeybees tottered between blossoms trailing chemical bliss to lure their hivemates to the spoils. She paused for a moment, sheltering beneath an ancient weeping willow that mimicked the sound of snakes on the move as its leaves twisted against the stones. Music filled the courtyard and light strained against colored panes, eager to find release in the night.