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There's a certain breed of middle grade fiction novel for kids that defies easy categorization. Call them fantasies without fantasy. These strange little novels pop up from time to time encouraging readers to believe that they are reading about something fantastical without having to throw magic spells, ghosts, or singing teacups into the mix. Frances Hardinge's "Fly by Night" and "Fly Trap" fit this description. Ditto any book that really involves an alternate world. Now when I received my copy of Matthew Kirby's "Icefall" I had an inkling that it would definitely be that kind of book. This notion was confirmed when I flipped to the first entry in my advanced reader's galley and read the following classifications. They call it: "Action & Adventure", "Science Fiction, Fantasy, Magic", and "Mysteries & Detective Stories". Highly amusing since there isn't much in a way of science fiction or fantasy or magic here. Action, Adventure, Mysteries, and Detective Stories though? Tons! And entirely worth discovering too.

It's tough being the middle child. Solveig knows this, but it doesn't make her life any easier. Neither a beauty like her older sister Asa nor . . . well . . . male like her younger brother Harald, Solveig has never attracted the attention of her father, the king. Now with their nation at war, the three children have been sent to a distant mountain fortress to wait out the days until the battle's end. As they wait they are joined by their father's guard, the highly unreliable and frightening berserkers. At first Solveig is put off by their manners and actions, but as time goes on she grows to trust them. That's part of the reason she's so shocked when someone attempts to poison them all off. Though the community in this fortress is small, someone amongst them is a traitor. And in the midst of her training to be a storyteller, Solveig must discover the culprit, even if he or she is someone she dearly loves.

Now when I said that this book didn't contain so much as a drop of magic within its pages I was being facetious. Truth be told, aside from the whole alternate world building Kirby does allow Solveig some premonitions in the form of dreams. And yes, the dreams seem to foretell what will occur in the future. Admitted. That said, I get the feeling that Mr. Kirby included the dreams almost as an afterthought. To be perfectly blunt, they come right out. Their sole purpose is to foreshadow, and foreshadow they do. There are certain fictional tropes for kids that just rub me the wrong way, like prophecies and the like. Portentous dreams, as it happens, don't bother me one way or another unless they rate too much importance. In "Icefall" Kirby grants his characters' dreams just the right amount of attention. Not too much. Not too little.

The book would actually make a fairly effective murder mystery play, should someone wish to adapt it. Like any good murder mystery the suspects are limited, cut off from the rest of the world. Scenes can only be set in the woods or in the buildings, and not much of anywhere else. Then there's the whole "And Then There Were None" aspect. Anyone could be a suspect, and Kirby does a stand up job at not making the culprit too easy to identify. A big smarty pants adult, I thought I'd figured it out partway through, but it turned out that I was only solving a portion of the mystery. Well played, Mr. Kirby, sir. I should probably be more upset that Solveig never really solves the mystery unless forces beyond her control take over, but surprisingly I didn't really mind. For me, the focus of this book isn't the mystery aspect, but Solveig's own personal journey.

I like to keep my ear to the ground and pay attention to the books that garner a bit of buzz. And "Icefall", much to my surprise and pleasure, has legs. Both adults and kids have really responded to Kirby's writing here. Considering that we're not dealing with a notebook novel or a story involving witches, wizards, vampires, zombies, or the future in any way, shape, or form, this is interesting to me. Who would have thought that a story involving a Viking-like girl with low self-esteem would garner such love? I credit Kirby's writing. Though the murder mystery is a good way to lure in potential readers, the real strength to the tale lies in the blossoming of Solveig. Her desire to become a storyteller is there, but this isn't a book where the heroine decides she wants something and then shows an immediate and natural acuity for it. Solveig struggles with her gift, and fights to improve it. Better still, Kirby has the wherewithal to hinge his plot on Solveig's growth. What she learns in the course of the story is directly responsible for the story's climax. To wit, this is a novel where the protagonist begins the book with an apologetic "I am only Solveig" and ends with a strong, no nonsense, "I am Solveig".

Long story short (so to speak) when reading "Icefall" you believe in Kirby's characters, relationships, setting, and the ability of the heroine to learn and grow. Mr. Matthew Kirby debuted as a middle grade novelist last year with his original and amusing "The Clockwork Three". That, compared to this, was a book with epic intentions but was, in its way, very much a debut novel. With "Icefall", Mr. Kirby's writing has matured. There's a depth to "Icefall" that sets the book apart from the pack. This is a story that stays with the reader for long periods of time. Maybe folks will find it a bit predictable or slow at times, but with its reliable writing and killer ending (literally), this is a book that establishes Mr. Kirby as a writer to watch closely. I like where this fellow is going and I like this novel. And so will the kids.

For ages 9-14.
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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.
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VINE VOICEon November 17, 2011
Solveig is the second daughter of the king, neither heir to the throne like her younger brother nor beautiful like her older sister. She and her siblings have been sent away to a remote, frozen hideaway to remain safe while their father is at war. Then the king sends a group of his deadly berserker warriors to watch over them. But it will be a long winter, trapped in their fortress with limited food. And soon it's clear that there is a traitor among them.

Solveig is a brave girl, but humble and unaware of her true potential. It's soon apparent that she's a talented storyteller, so she begins to apprentice with her father's bard. This is when Kirby shows his talent, weaving Scandinavian folklore into applicable stories in a beautiful and poignant way.

This coming-of-age tale is dramatic and thrilling. Readers of all ages should enjoy this fascinating story of honor, betrayal, and mystery. By the end, I was completely enveloped in Solveig's story and was swept away. This impressive sophomore novel is a standalone Nordic tale with the feel of an endearing fairy tale. Icefall is easily one of my favorite novels this year.
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on April 18, 2014
This book was not at all what I expected, it was much better! The setting is so unique and Kirby does an excellent job of taking us there. He includes just enough detail to make the world alive without making descriptions boring (e.g. cue Robert Jordan). He also does a great job of writing a female protagonist, keeping the plot fresh, and adding suspense to the mix. He is also a very talented writer. I really enjoyed his writing style.

The reading of the books is done very well and the story as a whole is short enough to make it through in reasonable time. I would recommend it to anyone 10 or older. It will take some time to get to "know" all of the characters because of their Norse names, but once you do its easy to fall in love with the story and root for Solveig. Can't wait for the second book!

P.S. People who did not like this...what the $%^# do you like?
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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!]
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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.
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on April 20, 2014
Being invisible in a crowd can be lonely, but being invisible within your own family is extremely painful for young Solveig, who is feels she has no value to her Viking king father. Although the main character in Matthew Kirby’s Icefall, she is plain and unimportant. She is not the beauty her older sister Asa is, who will bring an important marriage to their family, nor is she the adored and protected heir to the throne like her younger brother Harold. As she and her siblings and their protectors have been sent away to the far end of a frozen in fjord for their own protection, her father and his soldiers fight a war in their own lands. While their reality is suspended in that frozen winter, Solveig begins to understand that she might have her own gifts that are exactly what her company needs to survive their icy isolation. Solveig’s character is a realistic young teenage girl, who has crushes on unattainable men, is shackled with self-doubt, wishes to please the adults who are important to her, but is paralyzed by her own self-perception and fear of failure. Also interwoven through her coming-of-age story, is the unsettling realization of treachery in their midst, a hidden traitor who is only pretending to protect them. The mystery of who intends to weaken and expose their stronghold, keeps the reader engaged and reading for hidden motives in the actions of all the characters. The development of Solveig’s gift of storytelling along with her growing confidence in who she is, what her intrinsic value is, and in her contribution to her friends and family, is satisfying and rewarding. Kirby’s brilliant use of imagery brings the nature that surrounds them to life as another character, from the groaning glacier above them, the wolf-king that brings his pack near their steading, to the troll-like rock formations who watch them from the craggy mountain above them. The surrounding nature is as alive as the characters are, and drives the action of the story just as much. Icefall is a wonderful blend of coming-of-age angst and complicated family relationships, in the midst of war, mythology, and bigger-than-life nature. A great read for all those from 8 to 88.
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on August 13, 2012
The second daughter and middle child of her father, the king, Solveig has never been considered by herself, or anyone else, to be special. Her older sister, Asa, is beautiful and graceful and her younger brother, the crown prince, Harald, is spunky and determined to be a powerful warrior. Solveig is plain and shy, and doesn't really know where she fits in with the rest of her family. After her father declares war on a neighboring kingdom, Solveig, along with Asa and Harald, are sent away to spend the winter in an isolated fortress, safe from the perils of war. Along with the royal children come Per, one of the king's most trusted warriors, and several of his men, servants Bera and her son Raudi, a good friend of Solveig's, and Ole, a slave who was captured in battle years earlier but is now loyal to the king. The small group waits for the winter to come and the fjord to freeze over, blocking off any entrance by land or sea to their hidden fortress. Before the last ice forms, however, a ship full of berserkers, the king's most ferocious warriors, lead by the gruff Captain Hake arrives to ensure the royal children are protected. The berserkers bring with them a skald named Alric, a man serves as the king's chief storyteller. Solveig immediately bonds with Alric, who teaches her about the importance of stories and how they can shape the mind. As the winter trudges on, however, life in the frozen hall becomes increasingly claustrophobic. Used to the battlefield, the berserkers become restless, Solveig suspects that something is going on between Asa and Per, and several acts of sabotage threaten the lives of everyone in the fjord. Can Solveig uncover who the traitor is in their midst before it's too late?

Full of interesting characters, a rich and detailed setting, and a tense but creative plot, Icefall is a fascinating psychological fantasy novel that readers of all ages who want something that makes them think will enjoy. One of the most impressive parts of the book is how impactful Kirby's ability to create a feeling of claustrophobia is. As the winter gets darker and colder, the reader feels just as much apprehension as Solveig does about the possibility of a traitor living in the hall. All of the novel's characters are exceptionally well developed, particularly the very likable Solveig, and the reader finds themselves truly wondering who can be trusted and if everyone will make it through the winter alive. Although these feelings of tension abound in the novel, Kirby does an excellent job of limiting the amount of violence in the plot. The story takes place in ancient Norse times, so there is, of course, reference to battles, swordplay, etc. But parents should not be concerned about the appropriateness of the novel for tweens: everything is PG and there is very little gore. Although the novel is appropriate for younger readers, adults should not shy away from picking the book up as well. There are many layers to the plot that adults can appreciate, and the novel is, in plain terms, simply a good book. Highly recommended to fans of fantasy, mystery and stories set in ancient times.

When I first started this book I honestly wasn't sure I was going to like it. As it continued, however, I grew to absolutely love the story. Solveig is easily one of my all-time favorite female protagonists in any novel I've read in both the adult and young adult genres. The fact that she is so endearing really made me care about what happened in the story, and I found myself cheering her on as she grew more confident in herself and in her abilities as a storyteller. I would easily be able to recommend this book to tween and teen readers who want something that completely immerses them in a different world. I would also highly recommend it to adult readers as well! I'm looking forward to seeing what Matthew J. Kirby comes up with next!

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on April 22, 2014
This book really caught me off guard. I was expecting a much more Young Adult feel to this novel, but I was very pleasantly surprised. It is, indeed, a coming-of-age novel, depicting this process in its main character, Solveig. However, the story arc was so well drawn that it didn't feel at all like type of genre. It is a surprising book, too. I was expecting an adventure novel, filled with action, but Icefall gives you a very different kind of action. Almost all of the plot is actually spent indoors, although it certainly doesn't feel boring at any point. I was most impressed with Matthew J. Kirby's characters in this work. By the end of reading this novel, you will really love Solveig, among others. Kirby puts so much care into making these characters feel as real to us as they are to him. I loved that aspect of this work; you can really see the enormous effort he has put into carefully crafting these multi-faceted personalities. This element is heightened, too, by the possibility of each one being the traitor that Solveig is trying to uncover. Before I started reading this, I had no idea how mature of an author Matthew Kirby is, but after a few pages it was immediately clear to me how talented this man is. Icefall is not the book it appears to be; it is far greater. I would recommend this to anyone. You will love this interesting and new tale filled with vibrant and dynamic characters.
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on April 11, 2014
Icefall tells the story of a girl, finding her voice and her strength in the direst of circumstances. It took me a little while to get into the book, but when I committed to reading it and sat down for a few hours, that all changed. The details and emotions were written so well that I found myself thinking about the book long after it was finished. In the shower, at work, wherever I was, Solveig’s story was there too. Her character was realistic and endearing and I would love to read more about her. I was amazed at how real she seemed to be, but also how kind she was. I really enjoy reading about compassionate people, even when they have every reason to be bitter. On that same note, however, I was unclear as to her age. Sometimes she seemed so young, while others she seemed far more mature. Overall, this book gets a 4.5 out of 5 for me! I would recommend it to just about anyone who enjoys a good, fast read that incorporates some good morals.
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