13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ten little, nine little, eight little berserkers . . .
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...
Published on October 7, 2011 by E. R. Bird
3.0 out of 5 stars Icefall
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...
Published 1 month ago by candy hamilton
Most Helpful First | Newest First
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ten little, nine little, eight little berserkers . . .,
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.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A top 5 YA and one of the top for adults as well,
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.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dramatic and Thrilling,
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.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Spend Some Time with This One,
© 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!]
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Courtesy of the Figment Review at Figment[dot]com,
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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stunningly good,
A Nordic king has gone to war. To protect his three children while he is away, he has sent them, with a small household, to a remote steading. Later, just before the fjord freezes over and shuts the steading in for the winter, he sends reinforcements: a force of berserkers who exist uneasily alongside the others who dwell there.
Our heroine is Solveig, the middle child of the king. Her beautiful older sister Asa will bring a great alliance when she marries. Her younger brother Harald will be a warrior and become king one day. Solveig, plain and seemingly unremarkable, feels overlooked by her father. She is, however, a talented storyteller, and the king's skald, Alric, takes her under his wing and begins teaching her the art. This training provides much thought-provoking debate on the power of stories and the role of a skald, and as Icefall progresses, Solveig wonders if she will need to challenge Alric's teachings in order to be true to herself.
For Solveig, and everyone else at the steading, is in mortal danger. The group is now shut in by the ice, and a traitor lurks in their midst. Matthew J. Kirby perfectly creates an unbearable tension. Murder and sabotage stalk the hall. Everyone suspects everyone else, even their own loved ones. Food is scarce, and the only thing that alleviates the food insecurity is when people die, leaving more for the others -- food that is now salted with guilt. And as terrifying as the winter is, Solveig has had a nightmare that seems to predict even worse disaster when the spring thaw comes. Intertwined with the main narrative are flashbacks in which Solveig tells anecdotes from her past, reminiscences that tell us more about the characters -- the suspects -- and why they are so dear to her heart.
The characters are well-drawn. Solveig has a fantastic coming-of-age journey, beginning as an insecure girl and becoming a heroine worthy of legend. I also can't go without mentioning Hake, captain of the berserkers: gruff and dangerous, but with layers upon layers of depth beneath the surface. Every major character is complex. Even characters who do despicable things are portrayed in three dimensions and have realistic motives for what they do, and realistic weaknesses. They may be the villains of Solveig's story, but they see themselves as the heroes of their own -- an idea that Alric touches upon in his teaching.
All of this great storytelling and characterization is enhanced even more by beautiful writing. Kirby has a great ear for metaphor: "All of the sky looks like a burnt log in the morning hearth, cold, spent, and ashen." There's a good rhythm to the prose, too, making it feel like a story Solveig is telling us by the fire.
I very nearly missed out on Icefall twice. I received an ARC last year, but was swamped and knew my co-reviewer Bill (his review is somewhere on this page too!) )was a Kirby fan and passed it along to him, and then after reading his stellar review, selfishly wished I'd held on to it! Then, recently, I checked it out from the library, but kept not getting around to it, until I got an overdue notice and decided to hurry up and read it before I took it back. I'm so very, very glad I did. Don't make my mistake, people -- don't put off reading this book. Icefall is stunningly good.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Enchanting, Unconventional Middle Grade Adventure!,
As a reader of fantasy, I kept expecting some sort of magical element to pop up, but that didn't happen. No, the real magic of this book is the art of storytelling itself, and the role it plays in helping Solveig realize her strength as the often overshadowed middle child in a trio of royals.
Hidden away in a wintry fortress while their father is at war, Solveig, her younger brother (the heir to the throne), and her older sister (the beauty of the family) are settling in for a long, hard winter with no one but the household staff and a battalion of berserkers -- savage soldiers loyal to the crown -- for company. When strange occurrences point to a traitor in their midst, it's up to Solveig to unravel the mystery, protect her family, and discover her own, unusual strength.
I don't want to say more about the plot because it would spoil the experience and ruin a good number of heart-wrenching surprises.
I will say, however, that I haven't read another book quite like this. Kirby perfectly captures the quiet savagery I've always imagined the far north to have, and the sense of claustrophobia as Solveig realizes how very trapped -- and in danger -- they are at their isolated fortress. Despite the brutality of the environment, by the end of the book, you come to think of this place as home and the people in it as family.
Speaking of "the people in it," ICEFALL boasts an endearing array of characters, none of whom are what they first appear to be. Looking back, I should have seen some of the twists coming, but I didn't, and that speaks to Kirby's skill. I can't tell you who my favorites are, though, because even doing that would give things away! It is safe to say that I do love Solveig, the main character, whose sense of worthlessness and unimportance at the beginning of the book is just heartbreaking. I really appreciated that she comes to realize her worth not through some magical device or wizardly power, but through something both much more ordinary and extraordinary -- the power of words.
ICEFALL doesn't boast a lot of conventional action scenes, and the entire book takes place at this fortress -- but not once did I feel bored. Rather, I was absolutely riveted. I couldn't stop reading until I figured out who the traitor was, and why they did it, what was wrong with Solveig's sister, if the berserkers would succumb to their legendary bloodlust and attack the children, who was winning the war, and if the glacier hovering and creaking up above the fortress at the top of the mountain would fall.
I highly recommend this book to lovers of survival stories, magical realism, anything Norse, strong heroines, and suspense. Happy reading!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Norse mythology comes alive,
"Icefall" has a broad appeal, crossing age and sex barriers alike. Author Matthew J. Kirby never writes down to his audience. There's a sophistication to his writing that asks the reader to become an active participant, growing and changing along with the story.
Like Matthew's previous book, "The Clockwork Three, "Icefall" is a conglomeration of a lot of styles. It's part mythology, part mystery, part adventure and part fairy tale. And what's so exciting is that all of those parts, or genres, really do work together.
The diversity of Matthew's plots set him apart from other writers. Told from Solveig's point of view, "Icefall" is light years apart in subject matter from "The Clockwork Three." Both books are interesting and quickly captivate their readers.
It's clear Matthew intimately knows the worlds he creates. His storytelling abilities have evolved just like Solveig's. His prose is tighter and more refined, and his characters are well thought out and multidimensional. It never feels like a character is thrown in to make the story work, rather the story works because certain characters are there.
"Icefall" is a joy to read and that's because of the care Matthew put into it. His research of Norse mythology and its incorporation into this tale really make "Icefall" something special. It's one of the best middle-reader books of the year.
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful book!,
Amazon Verified Purchase(What's this?)
But it's not just a plot driven story. The characters are so well-constructed. Very poignant relationships are developed between the main character and those around her. I was trying not to tear up as I was reading the final chapters to my son!
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read!,
This review is from: Icefall (Paperback)My Thoughts-
Fabulous! I loved this book. At first I put it aside thinking it might be boring to read about a story where you stayed in one setting only, but I was wrong. This book blew my mind. The author does an amazing job keeping the tension high even though the setting is stable. It is a sign of a skilled author that keeps a reader engaged while the characters are trapped.
My favorite character is Princess Solveig. She is an amazing girl who loves her family and struggles with not being good enough for her father. She just wants to have something special to offer, like her older sister has beauty. Solveig's journey involves learning the truth about facades and the inner meaning of trust and honesty. The entire cast of characters is well fleshed out and the mystery of the traitor is engaging.
This is a must read for ages 8 and up! 5 stars!
Most Helpful First | Newest First
Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby