Icefall, by Matthew Kirby (Scholastic, October 2011, middle grade, 336 pages)
When is historical fiction fantasy? In reading well-written historical fantasy, sometimes the beliefs of the characters in magic, strange gods, prophetic dreams, and seemingly supernatural powers, make it seem as though all those things are real. And this, coupled with a setting that is strange and a culture that is alien, can make a book feel like fantasy.
This is what happened to me when I read Icefall, the gripping tale of Solveig, a Viking girl sent with her siblings (an older sister and a younger brother) and a handful of retainers to an isolated holding far in the north, to keep them safe while their father wages war. As the book begins, this small group is waiting for the promised supply ship that will bring them food for the long winter to come. When the ship does arrive, it carries (along with food) a contingent of berserkers--their father is clearly worried for their saftey.
In the dark and crowded wooden hall, boredom gives way to unbearable tension when it becomes clear that somewhere nearby, perhaps in the hall itself, there is a traitor, working to sabotage the group's chances of survival. But along with the berserkers came a skald, lifting the spirits of those trapped until the thaw begins in spring. And Solveig finds that she herself has a gift for telling stories...one that she will be forced to use when treachery is compounded by the arrival of her father's enemy, come to claim her older sister as his bride.
It is a most utterly gripping story, with the tension growing beautiful toward an edge-of-your-seat conclusion. Solveig's path toward becoming a skald, and finding her place in the world through her own talents, is in itself a fascinating story, and that, when coupled with the dangers faced by her small community, made this book one of my favorites of the year.
More, perhaps, could have been made of Solveig's older sister, who is essentially absent as a character during the long winter, but balancing that quibble out was the delight of watching Solveig tame a young raven (ravens are everywhere this year), and watching her interactions with the other characters change over the course of their time together.
Getting back to the question of whether this is fantasy or not--Solveig's prophetic dream has a hugely consequential impact on the course of events, but otherwise there is nothing that could not have been real (the berserkers, for instance, do go berserk, but they are supposed to in real life....). Yet this is a book that will delight fans of historical fantasy. I don't care as a reader, but I'm wondering in which category this will end up in over at the Cybils Awards. It was first nominated (by Betsy over at Fuse #8, who knows her stuff) as straight middle grade, but now its over in middle grade sci fi/fantasy. And I think, even though very little is "fantastical", it might feel more at home there, and attract the readers who will appreciate it most.
I'd give this one in a heartbeat to any eleven year old girl reader of fantasy and adventure stories, or boy, for that matter.
Just as an aside--I was curious about how many female skalds (if any) there really were, so of course I started googling. And I found a book that has me full of want--Old Norse Women's Poetry: the Voices of Female Skalds. Not only does it include the poetry of nine women known to history, but, among other tantalizing categories, there are apparently 7 poems attributed to troll-maidens. I am tremendously intrigued.
(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)