Review of Ice Land by Betsy Tobin

Ice Land by Betsy Tobin - Historical Fiction - Medieval History - Norse MythologyIce Land by Betsy Tobin
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Plume (August 25, 2009)
ISBN-10: 0452295696

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.

6 thoughts on “Review of Ice Land by Betsy Tobin

  • I”d love to read this story, because it really sounds interesting, but why, why,why do so many authors increasingily insist on writing their novels in the present tense? There are times when this technique works, Ibut I’ve seen far too many efforts(and one in a historical novel where it really wasn’t necessary), where it’s just a gimmick, or the writer thinks they may be able to sell it as a Hollywood script. To me, this is an incredibly annoying trend.

  • Anne, I admit I’m not a fan of the present tense in novels. I prefer for authors to just stick with the past tense. After a while, the present tense can become annoying. In Ice Land it was difficult at first to get used to, but really after a while, I didn’t notice it that much. Tobin’s language and writing style are really beautiful, and I got wrapped up in that.

  • Steve, two things here. First, “beautiful writing” may be just that — beautiful writing, but not much else. If you recall, there were a lot of criticisms of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series because the writing wasn’t “beautiful” enough for sme. But boy, did she have a story! Second, Tobin may or may not have a problem with being “gimmicky” in her use of present tense. I haven’t read the book so I can’t really judge. But there seem to be an increasing number of writers who have borrowed this technique from more “literary” fiction where it can work better, or from some Young Adult fiction where it also can work better, and rather indiscriminately applied it. I read one historical novel about a year ago, that was written in the present tense, and it was all right, but it wouldn’t have made the slightest difference to the narrative if it had been written in the past tense! However, the writer seemed “prefer” present tense simply because she thought it was more “immediate”. Or something. This is what I mean by “gimmicky”. There is more and more of this. And I’m pretty hard on “gimmicks” for the sake of gimmickry.
    Anne G

  • Anne, I definitely think Tobin could have achieved the same effect telling the story in the past tense. It would have likely been better in the past tense, but that could also be my preference. It would have made more sense to me for it to be in the past tense since it is told mostly from the perspective of a Norse god, and the Norse religion has pretty much died out. I would have loved to interview Betsy and asked her why she chose the present tense.

  • Steven, of course the ultimate decision on this lies with the author. But when an author is deciding whether or not to use this technique, he/she should ask him/herself “Does this really work, or am I just using this because it’s being used by other authors who sell?” “Does this make sense, or does it feel ‘gimmicky’?” A good author will be able to tell, I think. They should also ask themselves how this is going to strike potential readers, not just “it feels right, I’ll do it.” Believe me, I’ve seen some pretty lame excuses for writing in present tense. One of the lamest(and one of the most recent) was “Im writing my novel in present tense because I want to ‘be there’ and identify with my characters!” Nice idea, I suppose, but it doesn’t really work.
    Anne G

  • I can’t argue with your logic. Even after reading Tobin’s book, which I feel handles the present tense well, I don’t really desire to read more books in the present tense. I will always prefer the past tense.

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