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Now in Paperback: Icefall

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by Matthew J. Kirby

Scholastic, 2012

Things are tense but bearable as Matthew J. Kirby’s sleek, superb Young Adult novel Icefall opens: a Viking king has sent his children and their small retinue of retainers to a far northern fjord for their own protection as his enemies close in around him. Up on the fjord, his children face only the onslaught of the natural elements, and those elements also protect, as Solvieg, the king’s second daughter and our narrator, realizes: “Winter is here to wall us up, to bury us in snow and keep us safe.”

Rations are short as the cold intensifies and fjord’s gradual freezing looks likely to prevent supply ships from reaching them. Kirby expertly sharpens the low-key excitement of the steading’s cold waiting – and how it’s penetrated by the sudden appearance not of a supply ship but of a drekar, a warship full of armed fighting men. After a brief interval of frightened confusion, the men turn out to be the elite berserker bodyguard of the king, under the command of their grizzled captain Hake, sent to protect Solvieg, her beautiful sister Asa, and her headstrong brother Harald, the future king. Hake and his men place a strain on the already-thin resources of the steading, but they bring their own resources as well, including two cows. And along with the fighting men comes Alric, the king’s skald, his trained bard, who immediately senses a kindred spirit in Solvieg, willing to dispense to her some key advice of his craft:

When you know what to look for in your audience, you know what is required. The moment may call for you to entertain, to flatter, to reverence, to encourage, or to soothe. So long as you have learned and can recall the appropriate story, song, or poem, you can deliver it.

Even so, the waiting is more wearing then ever, especially with all the enormous warriors crammed into the same hall. Tempers flare, and, as Solvieg observes, personalities subtly change:

This place has done strange things to the people I know … Bera no longer hums while she cooks at the hearth. Harald seems even more impatient and impulsive than he usually is. Asa’s beauty used to have a rich glow, like a golden summer evening when the setting sun seems to light the fields on fire as it touches them. Now her beauty had become a winter wood, stark and frosted and still. It makes me wonder how I have changed.

When a very human treachery begings stalking the steading – first the cattle disappear, then someone poisons a meal, incapacitating most of Hake’s men and setting up a surprisingly effective whodunit in a very unusual setting – the story’s focus sharpens onto Solvieg’s ingenuity and her skaldic ability to sift truth from illusion. Kirby gives all these characters – from warrior-captain to young girls to a despondent thrall – refreshingly real personalities, often with deft, minimal effort. And the whole narrative is reinforced by spirited re-tellings of some of the great stories from Norse mythology – usually reshaped cunningly to comment on the current state of the plot. The sharp characterizations, the expertly-handled tension, the exciting climax, a young heroine of spirit and intelligence, all of it now in a very affordable paperback with a cover by the great Owen Richardson: it all adds up to a book no Young Adult – or book-inquisitive adult, for that matter – will want to miss.

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