Ice Land by Betsy Tobin

COVER ice land by betsy tobinRating: 8 out of 10

Ice Land combines the gods of Norse mythology with the everyday lives of ordinary humans living in Iceland around 1000 CE, and the story itself was just as lovely as the paperback cover.

Fulla is coming into her own as a young woman living on her moderately wealthy grandfather’s farm. She’s pretty and she knows the practical things like making a meal and riding a horse. Looming in her near future is a betrothal which, as Icelandic society dictates, will be decided by her grandfather, since both her parents are dead. But this isn’t what Fulla wants.

She craves the unexpected. Each day, she rides her horse across pock-marked fields of blackened lava to the hot pool, her servant Helga two strides behind. And each day, she prays her life will somehow burst its narrow banks.

But the gods do not listen

Her future was set out long ago, like runes carved in stone. She will reach the age of consent, marry a man of her grandfather’s choosing, and bear him as many sons as she can endure. She will watch her boys grow into stout young men, learn to wield the sword and axe, and die violent deaths. Just as her father did.

Her father, Jarl, died in a land dispute against their neighbor, another large farm-owner named Skallagrim. This fighting and dueling has been going on for as long as Fulla can remember, and her grandfather, Hogni, has become bitter about the conflict, wishing only to enjoy his dwindling days as an old man.

Fulla encounters Vili, son of the enemy Skallagrim clan, through several escapades and a bond forms between the two young people, an impossible bond because of their shared history and the fact that Fulla will soon be betrothed and married to a man of her grandfather’s choosing.

In an alternating narrative, Freya, the famous Norse goddess of love, hears a prophecy and travels to the land of the dwarves in order to search out a mysterious golden necklace which will supposedly help her with a looming and deadly catastrophe: the volcano Hekla has been rumbling and causing earthquakes in the land of Asgard, and promises destruction in the near future. Freya has loved and lost in her own time, and knows that her race, the race of the “gods,” is a petty, jealous, and shallow group. Christianity is growing on Iceland, and the old gods are getting pushed backed.

I wasn’t entirely sure what exactly Ice Land would be all about–the summary provided on the back wasn’t very descriptive–and I admit, shallowly, that I picked it up because the cover was pretty, and also because I haven’t had much exposure to Norse mythology and I thought it would be interesting to learn something about it.

I feel like, all in all, the plot itself wasn’t spectacular–not particularly adventurous or exciting, but the characters themselves and Tobin’s writing created a different world. Tobin follows that writer’s maxim, “Show, don’t tell,” perfectly. She didn’t have to say “Fulla is a teenager and can be a little bit rebellious, but she’s also fairly intelligent and practical, she observes the world around her and understands a lot.” Tobin showed it through her narrative which allows the reader to get to know the characters as people, and not as little bits of text printed on a page. She did this with all the characters, and also with the way she described Icelandic culture and life.

Sometimes the alternating narrative thing doesn’t work out too well for me–usually I become more interested in one than the other. But in this case I enjoyed how everything was very balanced and and came together really well. Fulla and Freya both kept me interested.

Here was a great bit from Freya, Norse goddess of love:

Cats, I decided, had certain advantages over men. They were loyal without being sycophantic, independent without being absent, and affectionate without being rapacious. That they choke up balls of fur and leave dead rodents at my feet is unfortunate. But it is not grounds for divorce.

I was very engrossed by Ice Land, it was beautiful and mythical and I will be reading more from Betsy Tobin in the future.