Review written by Jocelyn Koehler.
Icefall is well-conceived suspense story that also happens to be a historical novel…with vikings. Somewhere in medieval Scandinavia, a king sends his children (daughters Solveig and Asa, and son and heir Harald) to a remote outpost, accompanied by a small band of warriors, where they’ll be safe from the coming war. But soon they discover that a traitor has infiltrated the encampment, which the northern winter has turned into a prison. Supplies run low, people begin to die. Solveig, the middle daughter, is the protagonist. She must find out who the traitor is before everyone falls victim.
The setting of the novel is realistic but moody, perfect for the night-bound scenes that comprise most of the story. A great, frozen mountain looms over the outpost as a visible reminder of the tenuousness of life. The claustrophobic world of the outpost is made worse by the unstable nature of the people who inhabit it. Berserker warriors always a breath away from snapping, teenagers with shifting emotions and hidden loyalties, and servants with too many masters. Every single character is a potential villain.
Solveig herself is complex and fallible, uncertain of her place in the world. She begins to find her way with the help of a skald, who teaches her the trade of storytelling. She finds that she has a true talent for it, but then she must put everything on hold to find the traitor, who clearly plans to kill everyone in the camp. In addition to the skald Alric, she allies herself with the chief berserker, Hake, trusting him to help her discover what’s going on. She uncovers a lot of minor secrets, a few major ones, and ultimately rescues the survivors just as spring is coming. It turns out that there are several traitors: one is the servant Ole, who poisons most of the warriors. But Asa proves to be a traitor too, since she conspired with her secret boyfriend Per to allow a rival king to get into the camp and take the survivors hostage, before Solveig and Alric devise a plan to escape.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
It’s about war and warriors. Violence is present. Ole poisons people. The berserkers go berserk and kill others in a fight. The people in the camp are taken hostage and threatened with starvation, slavery, and death by Gunnlaug (the rival king). Hake, the lead warrior, is particularly aware of his propensity for violence and the fact that his rage is uncontrollable. However, violence is more often threatened than performed.
People die. Deliberately poisoned meat kills almost half the soldiers in the camp early in the book. A few others die later of starvation, and one of exposure (because cabin fever essentially drives him crazy and out into the cold). A few warriors die in a skirmish, or later of their wounds. Alric sacrifices himself at the end so that Solveig can complete the escape plan. Death is seen as inevitable, although the characters mourn their loved ones.
Slaves were a fact of life in medieval times. Ole, the direct antagonist, comes to Solveig’s family as a slave (her father captured Ole in a Viking raid). It is mentioned that some slaves have hard lives (especially ones who have to do manual labor). But Ole was never mistreated; in fact, he is regarded as a beloved servant by the children. But the existence of slavery drives the antagonist, and he explains his perspective to Solveig, who comprehends his resentment without sympathizing with his choices.
Sex & Romance
There is no sex in Icefall. The only romantic relationship developed in the book is between Asa and Per, and it is clear that their relationship is to be viewed negatively. Both Per and Asa appear to be weak, selfish people to Solveig, because they place their personal happiness over the safety of others.
Solveig herself is portrayed as a bit too young to really be interested in romance. She has a mild crush on Per until she learns the truth. She also has a friendship with Raudi (another boy character), but it never develops into more.
A big part of the plot involves loyalty and betrayal. Solveig feels horribly betrayed when she finds out that her older sister has been lying to her about her secret romance with Per. Worse, Asa’s determination to stay with Per (an unsuitable husband) is the impetus for the worse betrayal of allowing Gunnlaug to capture them.
Ole is the first traitor discovered, and his betrayal hurts Solveig particularly because she has known and loved him all her life. But Ole justifies/rationalizes his decision by claiming that he never betrayed his true king Gunnlaug (and that his promises to the new king who claimed him through war were therefore non-binding).
Gunnlaug, the boss villain, is also untrustworthy. He goes back on his secret deal with Per after he gets into the camp. Ultimately, everyone who is a traitor ends up dead or on the run, so there is a kind of justice. But Solveig is still angered and disappointed by her sister’s and Per’s trickery and self-centeredness.
Class and Social Expectations
Like slavery, class is inherent in the story. Harald, the young brother, is valuable as a hostage because he’s the crown prince. Asa is valuable because of her marriageability (Gunnlaug plans to force her to marry him, but he is defeated before this can happen). Solveig, as a second daughter, is not valued for marriage, but this is precisely what allows her to learn how to be skald from Alric. Class appears in other ways, particularly in Solveig’s interactions with Raudi, a character that she is mildly attracted to, but is below her in class.
Icefall is very complex about family ties. Solveig’s father loves his children enough to send them away to safety. The siblings like each other. However, Solveig feels that both Asa and Harald get more attention and love from their parents than she does. When Asa chooses Per over following her duty as a daughter, she sets in motion events that end up severing her from her whole family (the couple ran away or disappeared at the end). However, when Solveig and Harald return to their father, Solveig is more secure that her father loves her and will support her wish to be a skald. She also learns that respect and love can be earned (as she reflects on her friendships with Hake and Alric), and that simply demanding loyalty doesn’t work.
This is a menacing, deep, and ultimately rich story that kept me up well past my bedtime. Icefall was my favorite YA novel of 2011, and anyone who likes mysteries, the medieval period, or long, cold winters thick with horror should check it out. While the protagonist is a girl, the setting and story should appeal to boys as well. The dark tone and the complex themes add greatly to the plot. It would be suitable for ages 10 and up (though the book cover suggests 8-12), and it should spark some good conversations.
Icefall by Matthew Kirby
Published in 2011 by Scholastic.
Read free ARC