Icefall - Matthew J. Kirby

What a beautiful coming of age novel.


When a Viking king faces war, he packs his three children and a small household off to safety in a hidden hall in a glacier. There’s Asa, the beautiful eldest daughter whose father refuses the bride price offered for her by an older rival king; Harald, the only son and youngest of the three siblings, destined to be king after his father; and Solveig, the plain, spare middle child. But he also sends a horde of berserkers to keep the family safe, and Solveig believes there is a traitor in their midst.


Don’t expect grand fight scenes or lots of action in this book. Most of it revolves around Solveig slowly uncovering who the betrayer is, if there even is one. She is also led down a merry path of discovering her own identity in that of a skald, a kind of Viking poet and storyteller (and such, also a kind of historian, since Viking history was largely verbal), and the power and confidence she gains in that role.


There’s no ‘magic’ as such in this – it’s much more historical than fantasy, set in the real world hundreds of years ago, though Solveig is convinced her recurring dream is a terrible prophecy. The pace is kind of slow but consistent, quietly catching you off guard as months pass in the story, giving Solveig time to grow and develop among the icy realm. There are a lot of beautiful stories within this story, as she discovers the power of the skald to comfort, or intimidate, or educate. It’s written well enough that you can guess the twists before they occur, although I was a little disappointed that it turns out to be a male character on the cover of this book.


I think that is why I took so long to finally read it: the cover looks strikingly (lol) Middle Grade – an illustration with a man/boy on the cover instead of the female protagonist we actually get. It’s also a Young Adult novel, and although we do get to explore the concept of love in this novel, we don’t get to experience romantic love with Solveig. I found it conspicuously absent, especially since one of the other characters, a childhood friend around the same age, seemed to be the prime candidate for a love interest. Instead, Solveig guides us through the love she feels for her family and the platonic love she feels for the other members of her household, including her beloved pets.


I listened to the audiobook, and while this didn’t deliver extreme emotional punches, the narrator was fine, doing a variety of accents and tones to indicate different characters. At first I thought her voice was a bit ‘young’ to be Solveig, but this book turned out to be kind of a crossover to Middle Grade anyway so it worked just fine. Her delivery and pronunciation of foreign terms and names was impressive.


Icefall caught me off guard and I fell a little bit in love. It reminded me a lot of A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C Bunce. If you’re looking for something similar in tone, character, and quiet strength, you might enjoy this one. Solveig’s strength is not the kick-butt action heroine we’ve come to expect from YA in recent years. Maybe that’s a good thing, because this was published in 2011, and as such it has been a nice little palette cleanser for me.