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Betsy Tobin – Ice Land

August 26, 2009

100. Ice Land by Betsy Tobin (2009)

Length: 380 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 15 August 2009
Finished: 19 August 2009

Ice Land was published yesterday by Plume; get your copy at Amazon.

Where did it come from? The publishers via Shelf Awareness.
Why do I have it? Historical saga and Norse mythology in one? I’m not made of stone.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 01 July 2009
Verdict? Not quite as good as I was hoping, but still a keeper.

Gods, mortals, and dwarves
in a time of upheaval
and an age of myth.

Summary: Ice Land involves two intertwining stories set amidst the turbulent backdrop of Iceland in the eleventh century. Fulla is a young woman who has been raised by her grandfather since her father was killed in a border dispute. Her grandfather is anxious for her to marry someone wealthy and respectable, but her heart is set on someone else… a young man that her family will never accept. Freya is a young goddess, who has been warned by the Norns that catastrophe is coming. They send her to find the Brisingamen, a dwarf-made necklace with the power to influence destiny. But the dwarf brothers who made the necklace are not willing to part with it easily, both Freya and Fulla will find themselves caught up in a quest that is tied to the necklace, to their fates, to the gods, and to the deep forces stirring in the land itself.

Review: Ice Land bills itself as a story of myth and saga, a story of love and jealousy and magic and passion and destiny. All of these things are true. It also bills itself as being in the tradition of The Mists of Avalon, and while I can see where they’re drawing the comparison, Ice Land doesn’t quite measure up.

The problem for me was that while Tobin is very good at evoking a mythological atmosphere, giving her work a feeling of being contained within an Icelandic saga, and drawing on the power of her setting to create a real sense of turmoil in the world and in her character’s lives, the story itself just didn’t go particularly deep. The story was compelling, no doubt, but it didn’t deal with many of the themes it set up in any particular detail, and that ultimately made it somewhat unsatisfying.

For example, much is made in the early parts of the book of the tensions between pagans and Christians. This should have been an area with a lot of fertile ground to explore, especially given that the rest of the book dealt with the ending of the time of the Norse gods. However, Christianity is barely mentioned after about the halfway point of the novel, and the two themes, despite their obvious connection, aren’t really tied together as well as they should have been.

Similarly, it took a very long time for me to realize that Fulla’s and Freya’s stories were actually interconnected, rather than running in parallel. While both stories are interesting, they’re very disparate for much of the book, making the shifting focus distracting, and when they finally directly intersect, it’s too late to make the book fully cohesive.

All of this is sounding more negative than I mean it to; while the book did have some structural problems, I enjoyed reading it very much. Tobin’s language is lofty and lovely, and the individual elements to each story are well written and very compelling reading. Mostly, I think my main issue with this book is that, in all its sweeping scope and mythic background, it sets itself up for bigger and more grander things than it actually achieves. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I think historical fiction fans as well as people interested in Norse mythology will enjoy this book, as long as they go in expecting a good story rather than a Grand Epic Saga.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Just Books, We Be Reading
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: When I was sixteen, I was given a cloak made entirely of feathers.

Cover Thoughts: Thumbs up. It doesn’t directly match any particular scene, but the barefoot woman with the flowy dress, the wet, green forest, and the ethereal feeling to the whole thing… plus the bronze viney title treatment all set the tone of the book nicely, and make it very appealing.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 14: “Already there is talk of such a marriage. Fulla hears them murmuring by the fire, her grandfather and the other godi of the region.” – the Old Norse term for a priest and chieftain.
  • p. 39: “They sit side by side on a bench by the fire, and eat skyr mixed with bilberries from wooden bowls.” – an Icelandic cultured dairy product, a type of fresh cheese that has been strained.
4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 26, 2009 10:04 am

    I know next to nothing about Norse mythology, but I did love Greek and Roman mythology in school, so I suspect I would enjoy the Norse as well. The book sounds interesting to me.

  2. August 26, 2009 10:45 am

    I don’t think I would be interested in this but you did get me interested in looking for a book with a contemporary story set in Iceland – don’t think I’ve seen one!

  3. September 1, 2009 8:47 am

    bermudaonion – My Norse mythology is much worse than my Greek mythology as well, but I picked up D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths a few years ago, so it was nice to have that to refer to.

    rhapsodyinbooks – Let me know what you find; I don’t think I’ve seen one either!


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