The king of a Northern land, having refused to marry off his beautiful eldest daughter and deed some of his holdings to a nearby chieftain, is now at war. He sends Harald, his youngest child and heir to the throne, along with Asa, the eldest daughter, and his middle daughter, Solveig, to a remote land to keep them safe. The king also sends a handpicked group to accompany them. As the novel opens, they await supplies before winter freezes out any vessel’s passage by water. A ship eventually arrives with the king’s personal guard–20 hearty berserkers wrapped in animal skins, led by Hake, a giant to rival Thor, and the king’s skald, Alric. When someone poisons the berserkers, everyone suddenly becomes a suspect.
Solveig, the only one of the king’s children who feels she has no purpose, narrates the story. At Alric’s urging, she begins to cultivate her gift for weaving a tale–and her narrative holds us in her spell. Her recurring nightmare suggests that she may also have the gift of foresight, in addition to her skills as a keen observer and storyteller. Matthew Kirby’s story peels away like layers of an onion. Two-thirds of the way into the book, Solveig reveals a structure to the novel that serves a dual purpose. Every piece of this puzzle, infused with Norse lore, fits together.
Young adult fiction tied to myths and stories? Yep, that’s me. And it turned out to be a gripping and imaginative story with great characters and a unique setting. Kirby really explores issues of trust in a community pushed to the brink while at the same telling a powerful coming of age story about a child awkwardly trying to find her identity (in contrast to the beautiful sister and the young brother and heir to the throne).
Three reasons you should read this one:
1) Great characters. Starting with Solveig this story is a mix of great characters. As noted above, Solveig struggles to find her place in the world. She is plain and has no clear place in the hierarchy of her community. Her sister is the beautiful princess who reminds everyone of her beautiful mother and whose beauty brings status to her father the king. Her brother is the young heir to the throne full of youthful energy and already showing signs of strength and courage. But it turns out she does have gifts and these will play a more important role in the life of the community than anyone would have predicted.
In addition you have Alric the sklad who is mentoring Solveig but who seems to lack any clear allegiances or commitments except his own safety. And Per the warrior Solveig idolized – who she thought was different from all the rest – but who is revealed to be all too human; and like everyone else with suspect motives and desires. Or Hake the frightening berserker who of all people seems worthy of trust. The interaction of these, and a number of interesting side characters as well, makes for fascinating reading.
2) Great setting. The tension starts from the very beginning with the idea that the ice flow will trap this party in place over the course of the winter. As the harsh winter descends Kirby ratchets up the tension with intrigue and violence. Trapped between the fjord and the glacier, and forced to live and eat in one building, the royal family shares space with warriors and servants. Soon nerves are frayed and friendships are threatened. This also serves as a great stage for the story elements as Solveig struggles to come to terms with being a skald and her gifts and identity. The sense of being trapped; the picture of a community pushed to the edge; the harsh reality of the Norse world are all captured here.
3) The power of story. Kirby not only weaves a great story himself but artfully explores the power of story in “real” life. He shows how we use stories to find our place in the larger world and to make sense of ideas, emotions, history and relationships. Stories can alter our mood, change our perspective and unite a community – among other things. kirby both shows this with his own skillful narrative and highlights it within the story using the Norse myths and the stories Alric and Solveig tell.
As should be clear from the above, Kirby weaves a great tale. There is historical detail, psychological insight, mystery, intrigue and more. And of course, there is a climatic conclusion.
A great story for readers young and old.
- The Big Idea: Matthew J. Kirby (whatever.scalzi.com)
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