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.