Last year I wrote this about Matthew Kirby's novel The Clockwork Three:
Amid the several highly anticipated children's and YA works this year by big names such as Suzanne Collins and Rick Riordan, one can be forgiven for missing the entry onto the stage of Matthew Kirby's first novel, The Clockwork Three. Forgiven, but no longer excused, for among all those much more hyped releases (though they are often justifiably hyped), this stands out as among the best. There. Now you know. You should get it. '
One might imagine, therefore, that Kirby's second novel, entitled Icefall, would have a difficult time matching the quality of the first. Darned if he didn't just do it though. Before I'd even finished it, Icefall was already on my list of top ten YA novels for 2011 and by the time I was done, as I suspected might happen, it made its way to my top ten fantasy novels in general. And fair warning to all those books coming out in the last few months: it's going to be hard to knock Icefall out of either list. Now you know. You should get it.
According to its publisher, Icefall is a Middle Grade book, for ages 8-12. I can tell you my nine-year-old son loved it, devouring it in a single sitting. I'll just point out, however, that I did the same (age 49) as did my wife (age 46). In other words, don't let its targeted age group deter you from picking it up; Icefall is easily better than 95 percent of the non-YA fantasy novels I've read this year. Easily.
The time period is ancient Norway and the only setting is a small fortress where a Viking king has sent his three children (Harald the young prince; Asa, the beautiful older daughter; and Solveig, the plain-looking overlooked middle child) for safety before he heads off to battle a rival warlord. Along with them are Per, head of a small group of soldiers; Bera, their cook; Raudi, Bera's son and Solveig's childhood friend; and Ole, a thrall captured in battle years ago and now sworn to the king. Stuck between the glacier-topped mountains and the icy fjord that led to the keep, with winter nearing, they look every day for news of their father's hoped-for victory. Instead, just before the fjord freezes completely, confining them there for the winter, a single ship arrives bearing the king's skald Alric and a select group of Berserker warriors, led by their Captain--Hake--, ordered there by the king as further protection.
Soon though, the fortress is beset by mysterious misfortunes, and it eventually becomes clear that there is a traitor among them, one who will stop at nothing to weaken and/or kill them. Trapped by geography and weather, stalked by hunger, death, and perhaps the worst enemy of all--mistrust of each other--they must make it through the winter and hope that when the fjord is free of ice, it will be the king's warships, and not his rival's, that greet them.
As with The Clockwork Three, Icefall is wonderfully tight. I wouldn't remove a single chapter and doubt I'd take out many single sentences or even words. This alone is nearly enough to make me weep in appreciation, as this seems to be a rapidly disappearing concept, this idea of using exactly as many words are needed and no more. When I'm consistently writing in review after review how many hundreds of pages could and should be removed from a novel to improve it, Kirby's concision and efficiency is like an oasis in an ocean of sandy verbiage. The prose is sparse but lyrical, as when he very early on describes an overcast sky as looking "like a burnt log in the morning hearth, cold, spent, and ashen" which not only describes the visual, but sets the mood for the entire book to come. He also has a nice sense of rhythm and space:
There was so little time for preparation before Father sent us away and went to war. He promised a boatload of food, clothing, and blankets, but we have seen no ship.
And none today.
And the fjord is freezing over.
The novel has an obvious dual structure, employing an alternate chapter construction. The longer chapters relate ongoing events from Solveig's first-person present-tense point of view while the shorter chapters are tiny flashbacks, also from Solveig's POV but told in the past tense. These vignettes (rarely more than a single page) often focus on her relationship with one of the other characters. One such chapter, for example, relates how her sister consoled her one night when she was miserable, another tells of the shame she felt when her father seemingly forgot about introducing her to someone. In a really masterful touch, the vignettes also move forward in time, until two-thirds of the way through they mesh with the present time and are dropped altogether. Complicating the structure, adding a more subtle third thread woven right into the action and dialog rather than separated out like the vignettes, are a series of Norse myths, some told by Alric and others by Solveig as she considers becoming Alric's apprentice. The movement among these three different strands is quite fluid, with each strand typically resonating with the others in terms of theme, character, plot, or imagery. It is a deft piece of work.
Along with emphasizing themes or character, the interruptions serve another purpose; they allow for the slow build-up of suspense as the traitor performs one attack after another, each more damaging than the last and as mistrust gradually seeps like its own poison into the fortress. The setting enhances this feeling throughout--the claustrophobia of such a small, single setting, the frozen landscape, the harsh weather and cold light, the haunting groans and moans of the glacier above them. It's almost an old Country House Murder kind of story--the lights go out in an isolated mansion, someone dies, the light come back on, and the survivors are left looking at each other wondering "which one is it--you? You? You?" It's worse than that though, for this is no group of strangers but people who have known and trusted, and even loved, each other for years if not their entire lives. Seeing this from young Solveig's eyes makes this even more wrenching, for where is she to cast her own suspicion: the woman who raised her as if she were her own child? Her childhood best friend? Her sister? The captain who was trusted so much by her father that he was sent to watch over his entire line? Kirby dangles enough clues that one can figure out the traitor, but he also drops enough red herrings that it's easy to get the traitor wrong. The truth is, you suspect several throughout.
As readers, each of these characters is drawn so fully, even if extremely concisely, that we not only feel Solveig's pain that one might be, must be, a traitor; we don't want it to be true ourselves. Solveig is clearly the most detailed character, but Kirby does an excellent job of bringing most of the others to life as well despite their lack of page-time. This is especially true of Hake--the Berserker captain--and Alric, the skald. But Solveig simply shines; this is her coming of age story, her slow blossoming that makes us care so much what happens, her voice that carries us throughout.
And it is literally her voice that she must find as she trains to become a skald under Alric's tutelage. Not only is this a brilliant metaphor for the coming-of-age story, it also allows Kirby to examine the nature and power of stories and story-telling itself. As when Alric tells Solveig:
A story is not a thing. A story is an act. It only exists in the brief moment of its telling. The question you must ask is what a story has the power to do. The truth of something you do is very different from the truth of something you know . . . My tale last night. Did it comfort you?
And was the comfort real? Was it true?
I thought it was.
Then the story was true . . . whether Thor's chariot is really pulled by two bucks or not.
The novel's conclusion is as emotionally harrowing as it is suspenseful and action-filled. How does Solveig's story end? Like all life stories. In happiness. In sorrow. In triumph. In grief. In joy. In bitterness.
In two books, Matthew Kirby has, in my mind, cemented himself as one of the best fantasy writers going today. And I'd be perfectly fine if someone wanted to take out the "fantasy" part of that description. A complicated, sophisticated structure. Vivid characterization. Gripping tension and suspense. A story about the power of story. Prose that glitters like ice. A main character whose painful awakening out of innocence would melt the heart of the coldest glacier and whose self-discovery is like the coming of spring after winter. This book should be on everybody's top ten fantasies list by the end of the year. It should be in your hands before then.
Addendum by Bill's my nine-year-old son Kaidan,:
I would give it five stars or a 95 out of 100. I liked the plot, the suspense, all the characters (especially Hake). I ranked it my third favorite out of the 68 books I read in the past year. It was really suspenseful. I wanted to know what happened, if Solveig's dream was going to come true, would the evil come, and especially who the traitor was. I suspected several different characters, including Ole, Per, and Asa, but I was never sure. My favorite scene was the conclusion. I did think it began a little slowly and I could have done without all of the myth stories--I thought there were a few too many--but overall this was the best book I've read in a long time.
on October 31, 2013
Matthew J. Kirby
Published February 1, 2013
Paperback, 321 pages
Trapped in a hidden fortress tucked between towering mountains and a frozen sea, princess Solveig, along with her brother the crown prince, their older sister, and an army of restless warriors, anxiously awaits news of her father's victory at battle. But as winter stretches on, and the unending ice refuses to break, terrible acts of treachery soon make it clear that a traitor lurks in their midst. Those charged with protecting the king's children are all suspect, and the siblings must choose their allies wisely. But who can be trusted so far from their father's watchful eye? Can Solveig and her siblings survive the long winter months and expose the murderer before he succeeds in destroying a kingdom?
Quick and Dirty: This story is for anyone who loves tales of Vikings and the lore that goes with them. It's a story of finding one's self, danger, betrayal, and courage.
Opening Sentence: The fjord is freezing over.
This story is about a Viking princess named Solveig who does not believe she has anything that makes her special and how she finds herself. Solveig's older sister Asa, is very beautiful and Solveig cannot compare to her beauty and their younger brother Harald, is strong and brave. When the three of them are sent to a hidden fortress to protect them from Gunnlaug, a man who would do anything to marry Asa, and steal their father's land. Solveig learns she can be more than she thought. Unfortunately someone that was sent to protect them is a traitor and Solveig has to help keep everyone safe and happy.
I had a hard time starting this book. The beginning of the story was very slow and did not really hold my attention. As the book progressed it started to pick up and by the end of the book I could not put it down. It was so intense and fast paced. Initially everyone was just settling into their roles in the book and there was not so much to tell, but once they realized that there was a traitor among them the tension built up. At the end when they are confronted by the enemy so much is happening and you are hoping that the good guys win that it gets exciting. I really enjoyed that this book used words the Vikings would have used instead of using standard English. I also liked the Norse folklore that is told throughout the story. It gave the story history without overwhelming a person or being boring.
Solveig was my favorite character. I liked how the author, Matthew J. Kirby had her change over time. In the beginning she was a timid girl who did not think she was could ever be like her siblings. Then as the story continues she starts to learn about herself. She learns that she is a wonderful skald, the Viking title for a great storyteller. She also realizes she is braver than she ever thought possible. From the beginning Solveig wasn't like other princesses who only thought of themselves and thought all work was for servants. Instead she helped do the chores and was a very good friend to the workers. She is also very loyal. Once she made a friend she would do anything for them. The last thing I liked about her was that she was so kind hearted. When people got hurt she cried for them and told them stories to make them feel better.
My second favorite character was Hake the berserker who was sent to protect Solveig and her siblings. For those of you who do not know what a berserker is, a berserker is a warrior unlike any other. They are the toughest and strongest and if you get them mad they literally go berserk and destroy anyone and anything in their path. I liked Hake because he came off as this big gruff man with no feels when in reality he was the sweetest guy. Solveig had grown attached to a goat before Hake and his berserkers arrived. Hake killed the goat not knowing it was Solveig's friend. He felt so guilty for what he had done he gives Solveig a wounded Raven to apologize for what he had done. When the enemy appears Hake is willing to give up his life for Solveig who he had come to love.
There are secondary characters that played roles in the book such as Solveig's siblings. Asa, was your typical princess. She would not help with chores and mopped around the fortress most of the time. She barely talked to her own sister and it turns out she had a secret but to learn Asa's secret you will have to read the book. Harald, Solveig's little brother was a sweetheart. He idolizes Hake and wants to be a big strong warrior right now. When anyone calls him little he gets upset and tells him he is not little. He is your typical little boy so full of energy and always curious about everything. Besides these two, there are the servants. There are five servants that play their parts in this book. There is Bera, the cook and her son Raudi. Without these two everything would fall apart around the fortress. The next servant is Ole, he is a thrall which means slave. He helps Solveig and the others by catching fish. He also tries to save Solveig from the enemy when they show up. Thirdly, there is Per a warrior who is in love with Asa and is very close friends with Solveig. Lastly there is Alric, who is also a skald and is the one who helps Solveig find her calling. Without him she would never have figured out who she wanted to be.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in Vikings and their lore. I also think this is a good book for anyone looking for a quick and simple read. There is adventure, betrayal and a touch of romance in this story, but above all, it is Solveig's tale of finding herself.
on January 24, 2012
Icefall - Matthew J. Kirby
© 2011, Scholastic, New York
Last year I discovered a brilliant new writer--Matthew J. Kirby--by virtue of our school's "Book Fair." His first book--The Clockwork Three--was filled with signs of a master wordsmith. Buildings and forests came to life. There was magic in the words--from beginning to end. The result of that read was two-fold: I am in the process of reading The Clockwork Three in pieces to my children as part of their bed-time routine (it takes awhile because we're only good for about five pages at a time); and I couldn't resist getting his second book (which I also found at a school book fair).
Icefall mixes myth and legend with period adventure and coming of age. It is the story of Solveig told in her own words. She is the second daughter of a Norse chieftan/king, sent with her older sister and younger brother to a safe haven while her father wages war against a would-be suitor for her sister, Asa. The story begins slowly but builds as you read--you will need to allow three or for chapters to get into the story--and the window into the world of old Norse legend is priceless.
We encounter berserkers, the elite fighting force of the king. Men who have learned to call upon the beast within for power during battle have been sent to protect the small band made up of the king's children, their guards and the servants who attend them. The berserkers arrive with Alric the skald (story-teller) just as winter arrives at their fjord.
As you read you will hear tales of Odin and Thor and Fenric (the Wolf). You will get caught up in the intrigue, the battles, and the stories of treachery. All the while you will laugh with Solveig, cry with her, hurt with her, tremble with her as she develops her skill as a skald in her own right.
One of the drawbacks to the book is the story that is inserted between most of the first chapters--meant to provide some of the characterization and aid the plot development, these little one- and two-page breaks do more to distract the reader than to further the story (it is my opinion that the book would read actually better without them). Another tactical error on the part of the author is the choice of first person active voice. He is consistent throughout the book, and the first person telling is good. However, the present active voice takes some getting used to.
Once you have mastered the voice of the story, you will be caught up, though--so get this book--buy it, borrow it, don't steal it--and read it. I give the author three and three-quarters stars for a grand story with some issues (mostly at the beginning--by the end of the story you won't want to put it down) in the telling.
--Benjamin Potter, January 24, 2012
[Just another note, in case you think Kirby is not worth reading (because I think he is): Icefall has received nomination for both the Edgar for best juvenile fiction and the Cybil for best Middle Grade Science Fiction/Fantasy. I think we'll be looking forward to much more from Mr. Kirby!]
on October 6, 2011
by Maggie Martin
The ice surrounding the fjord fortress is thick enough to keep any enemy out through the winter, but when a traitor is trapped inside, the ice is too close for comfort.
In Matthew J. Kriby's novel Icefall, Solveig and her brother and sister are tucked away in an enclosed fjord for the winter while their father, the king, fights for a victory of his kingdom. Everyone is safe until the king sends his most brutal men, the berserkers, to the fjord to protect Soleveig's brother, the heir to the throne. The men bring nothing but trouble, and soon a traitor is discovered amongst them.
All the while, Solveig feels lost as a member of the royal family. Her older sister, Asa, is the most beautiful girl in the kingdom and will bring honor to their family through marriage. Her younger brother, Harald, is the heir to the throne. And Solveig... is just Solveig. But as the book progresses, Solveig discovers that she has a gift for storytelling and is incredibly brave--traits that are equally important to the royal family, no matter what her father says.
Kirby kept me on my toes constantly while reading Icefall. He keeps the reader in the dark about who the traitor is, when Solveig's ice fortress would thaw, and why the king sends so many men to protect them after it does. Icefall is a little slow at first, but once the traitor is discovered and the paranoia starts to set in the reader feels as trapped as Solveig.
The main plot is full of action and suspense, but I think it is the strong side-plots that really boost the story. I found myself relating to Solveig, not knowing how she fits in with the world or who she is. Even though Icefall is set in the distant past, the themes are the same for teenagers today with just as much pressure to do the right thing and find one's place. Kriby does a wonderful job of mixing modern themes with an old and scary setting, creating a world I would revisit again.