Must apply nose to grindstone, as the memories of Matthew J. Kirby's Icefall are about two weeks old and getting older by the minute. I'm trying to remember why I downloaded this book in the first place and I think it was because it had some passionate advocates on the Heavy Medal blog (here's another shoutout to Newbery-Medal-winning Jack Gantos!). I've never been as articulate and just plain thoughtful as the hosts and commentors on that blog, but the idea of the novel intrigued me so I put it in my ears.
The three children of a Nordic chieftain have been tucked away at the end of a remote fjord backed by a menacing glacier with a few warriors and family retainers to wait out a long winter in safety. The chieftain is making war again (over the fact that his older daughter doesn't wish to marry an elderly rival chief) and knows that if his children are captured in battle, he will lose his chiefdom. The chieftain's younger daughter, Solveig, knows that she is the child who doesn't matter. Her beautiful older sister will make a political marriage and her younger brother, Harald, will inherit the chiefdom.
As the snow begins to deepen, her father sends a boatload of berserker warriors to further insure his children's security. While the berserkers bring food, their edgy violence also lend an atmosphere of dread to the small steading (communal shelter), an atmosphere exacerbated when Solveig's pet goat is butchered. The berserker leader, Hake (pronounced HA-kah), attempts to apologize to Solveig by bringing her an injured raven, whom she names Muninn (memory) in honor of one of the ravens who served the god, Odin.
The berserkers brought a skald with them as well -- a poet and bard who expertly relates the heroic stories of Norse mythology to the lives of his listeners. Alrec takes a liking to Solveig, and begins to teach her the trade as the dark nights close in. Even as Solveig's confidence grows, aided by Muninn sitting on her shoulder, the berserkers are struck by a terrible disease that kills nearly all of them. Only those who did not eat the meat of Solveig's goat survive. When the ice melts and the fjord opens, it is not Solveig's father who arrives at the now-defenseless steading, but his enemy, Gunnlaug. But that arrival still doesn't tell us who poisoned the goatmeat!
My quick notes to myself on Icefall say this: This book had so much going for it: adventure, mystery, war-mongering, storytelling, coming-of-age and a pet raven! Kirby tells us the story as an expert skald: creating atmosphere through descriptions of the physical setting and the behavior of the characters, foreshadowing and providing tantalizing clues to the mystery, focusing on a sympathetic heroine and her fits and starts in understanding her world and her place in it, and connecting all these elements slowly but inexorably to a thrilling climax where -- yes! all is revealed, all you've invested in the story is amply satisfied.
I almost always like listening to a book that incorporates storytelling, or includes storytelling in its themes; I like the convergence of the oral tradition and hearing rather than reading. And when it is a favored narrator, Jenna Lamia, who does an outstanding job, that's even better. Lamia (pronounced La-ME-ah) has a soft, girlish voice which is perfect for the shy, self-effacing Solveig. Yet, as Solveig learns to be a skald, her voice grows in volume and in heft when she is telling a story. I was also pleasantly surprised at how well Lamia performed the novel's other characters. They were distinct, natural-sounding and consistent -- and without the whispery quality that I associate with her "narrator" voice. I've enjoyed listening to her every time (but it's been awhile, last heard here), and yet for some reason, I don't associate her with strong characterizations.
The author reads a note at the end, explaining how he was inspired by the tale of the Ragnarøk and the tradition of the skald to tell his story. He's a little wooden, but I always enjoy hearing from authors. I was also surprised to hear a credit to the composer of the intro/outro music, which I have never heard before in an audiobook. (And my apologies to the composer for not writing down your name so you could be properly credited by me.) I wish I could remember even a snatch of the music, which may have been atmospheric and appropriate but is lost to me (if it doesn't have words, or I haven't heard it a whole lot, I'm not going to remember it).
The last thing I learned in listening to Icefall is that -- if you don't close Overdrive and don't shut down your computer, your audiobook's digits will remain operational past their expiration date (the books don't expire at all once they are transferred to my portable player, or at least they don't now). This would be most helpful to me if there were more audiobooks in the mp3 format, but I guess we can't have everything.
[The silver figurine of Odin on his throne with his ravens is from the Danish archeological dig at Lejre and is dated 900 C.E. This photograph was taken by Mogens Engelund and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. The figurine itself is housed at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde.
[The photograph of the Svartisen Glacier in Meløy, Norway was taken by Guttorm Raknes and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]
Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby
Narrated by Jenna Lamia
Scholastic Audio, 2011. 9:18