Ice Land by Betsy Tobin
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Plume (August 25, 2009)
Destiny is everything. At the foot of the tree Yggdrasil, the Norns sit and spin the threads of fate. The shuttle carries the weft through the loom, moving back and forth, back and forth, until a pattern forms in the fabric. From that pattern emerges an image, like the rising of a mountain out of the sea, bursting forth in a shower of smoke and flame. The world is determined by fate. Fate cannot be ignored; it cannot be halted; it will continue to rise and change like the mountain from the sea. The Norns have decided as such, the lives of men and gods woven together.
Such is the tale of Ice Land, a book steeped in the history and mythology of an ancient land. It is a time of change for the inhabitants of the island, as the spreading of Christianity threatens to destroy the old ways of life. Freya, the Norse goddess of love, is the central character of the novel. The tale revolves around an interpretation of the legend of the Brisingamen, a magnificent gold necklace crafted by four dwarves deep in the caves of Nidavellir, one of nine worlds in Norse mythology. Freya embarks on a quest to obtain the gold necklace, at whatever cost. Her lust for it drives her to sell herself to the four brothers who created it.
On the periphery of this tale of gods lies the world of men. A blood feud between clans — one Christian, the other not — drives a wedge between two young lives. In the true fashion of the Sagas of Icelanders, love and vengeance and justice influence human action, paralleled by the humanity and imperfection of the gods themselves.
Tobin’s prose is beautiful. Her lyrical voice radiates from page one of the novel: “When I was sixteen, I was given a cloak made entirely of feathers. It was made from pale grey falcon wings, unthinkably soft, with no more weight than a handful of ash.” It’s interesting, also, how Tobin switches from first person (Freya) to third person (every other character) depending on the character perspective of the chapter. She also writes the entire story in present tense, which at first takes getting used to, but once lost in the story and the characters, the tense is not even noticeable. The book is right at 350 pages but is easily read in a matter of days. The pacing and mix of dialogue and exposition are near flawless.
Along with the confluence of gods and men, the island itself also plays an important role in the story. The volcanic Mt. Hekla looms in the background waiting to erupt and cover the land in clouds of smoke and ash. Tobin’s descriptions of Iceland’s landscape are breathtaking: “Her [Mt. Hekla] vast glacial peak rises up behind me like the imposing neck of a triumphant queen. Hekla’s moods can be capricious: one moment she is stark, calm, majestic; the next wild, dark and menacing.” And again: “Tiny red and purple wildflowers spring from cracks in the lava, and bright green moss grows ankle-deep in the shallow craters, dotted with yellow buttercups. I stand for a moment, listening to the silence. A gust of wind blows. The sun emerges briefly from behind some clouds, and for a few moments, the earth glows.”
In the shadow of Hekla, an impending doom is foreshadowed, not only for the inhabitants of the island but also for the old ways, the old gods of Odin, Thor, Loki, and Freya. The coming of a new order threatens to destroy the gods’ powers and make them completely, irrevocably human. Yet there’s nothing that can be done. The Norns spin the threads. The pattern changes. Destiny is everything.
My rating: 4.5 stars
*A special thanks to Plume Books for asking me to read and review an advanced copy of the novel.