Thief Eyes, by Janni Lee Simner (Random House 2010, YA, 256 pages)
Haley's mother disappeared into the mists at Thingvellir in Iceland, the central gathering place of the medieval Icelandic settlers (shown below). She was never found. A year later, Haley and her father have returned to that very spot. There is no sign of her mother, but Haley finds a small silver coin, that burns her hand when she picks it up. And that night, the dreams come--dreams of fire, and smoke, and destruction.
Picking up the coin has bound Haley to the dark spell cast a thousand years earlier by her ancestor, Hallgerd. It was a spell cast in anger, made of blood on the day when Hallgerd found that her father was going to break his promise, and give her in marriage instead of letting her have her freedom. The spell led Hallgerd's soul down through all the line of her female descendants, looking for one who would change places with her....and at last it has led Hallgerd to Haley. An American teenager, greiving for her mother, knowing almost nothing of the legends of Iceland in which she is now entangled.
The spell draws Haley into a world where the Norse gods are real, where fire demons can send their power into the living, where one of Odin's ravens plays tricks with the memory of the entire island. With Haley is Ari, an Icelandic boy, with his own ancient magic brought to life by the reverberations of Hallgerd's ancient spell. Trapped by forces even older than Hallgerd's spell, the two must make their way back to their own present, and find some way of breaking the power of the fire that has taken hold of Haley's spirit. For the fire is seeking its own way out, to burn and to destroy....
Thief Eyes merges the Icelandic sagas and a story of contemporary teenagers into an adventure that reminds me of forays into the myths of the British Isles that characterized many twentieth century books for older children--I'm thinking of such luminaries as Alan Garner, Catherine Fisher (although she's early 21st century as well!), and Susan Cooper. The mythological and historical elements, freshly drawn from the original sources, provides the danger--that particular danger that happens when old magic ensnares the modern child. This is one of my favorite types of fantasy, and the Norse myths and sagas are still pretty fresh ground, fantasy-wise, so I was predisposed to enjoy this book very much.
And I did. It didn't have all the emotive power of the authors I mention above--there weren't any moments when the numinous hit me in the face and I was struck cold, but I enjoyed it lots. It helped, I think, that I'm pretty familiar with Njal's Saga, from which Simner drew heavily. I read Njal's Saga in Iceland, during a long cold summer spent digging up an abandoned medieval farm, and Hallgerd, a central character in the saga, came to be vividly alive in my mind. Simner's Iceland, a place where passion plays out in a magically-charged landscape that is fairly unfriendly to people, felt pretty much spot on to me. But I wasn't quite convinced by the trajectory of the magical danger in Simner's story---I would have preferred to have the focus stay more firmly on Hallgerd and her machinations, and felt that the involvement of the fire demons and Odin's raven confused the issue at hand somewhat.
On the contemporary side of things, Simner likewise doesn't quite achieve thematic coherence in the emotional forces buffeting Haley. I found Haley and Ari to be engaging central characters, whose growing attraction for each other added a nice dollop of (paranoramally flavored) romantic interest. This part of the story should appeal greatly to teenaged readers, and I liked it too. However, in addition to trying to work out just what she feels for Ari, Haley is also grieving profoundly for her mother, while trying to resolve the desperately scary circumstances into which the Hallgerd's ancient spell has propelled Ari and herself. These three elements of Haley's story seem to take it in turn to be on center stage, never quite working together to make one larger, more powerful, story.
Despite these reservations, I enjoyed the book very much; I almost loved it, which is why I went into detail about why I didn't. I had no trouble whatsoever turning the pages briskly till I reached the end, and I'd highly recommend it to those who enjoy their YA fantasies infused with myth and history, who are ready to accept the elements of those older stories with which they are unfamiliar, and willingly journey through an ancient land where the echos of past anger reverberate in the present.
Bonus feature: really charming arctic fox.