Betsy Tobin's Ice Land was an absolutely irresistible read for me. It's steeped in the history, mythology and geology of the country. I don't think I've ever read anything quite like it before, and it's the sort of book, which I wish hadn't ended. Now I'll have to turn to the Sagas and Norse Mythology to satiate my growing desire to know more about this culture. I'll definitely be looking for more books on the subject.
It's sort of an unlikely story, filled with gods (not so unlike ourselves surprisingly), a cloak made entirely of feathers--enabling the wearer to fly, dwarfs, giants, a stunningly beautiful golden necklace called the Brisingamen, and an island alive. An icy island you'd think was quite barren, but in reality is living and breathing and changing. Ice Land ca. 1000 AD is not usually a hotspot in my reading tour, and this is not the sort of book I would have imagined myself reading at one time, but I found it quite thrilling. Ever since I read about Gudrid earlier this year, I've been very interested in this country. It's obvious Iceland is a place and subject that Betsy Tobin is captivated by as well. She called this novel her "love letter to Iceland and its people".
What I especially loved about this book were the strong female characters. The story is told primarily from the point of view of Freya, the Norse goddess of love, and Fulla an 11th century woman raised by her grandfather, betrothed to one man she doesn't love and in love with another. So often women in novels are the victims of men (and horrible things happen to them), but here they are strong heroines who will be the masters (or should I say mistresses) of their own fates. When Freya is warned of impending doom for her people she sets off on a quest for the Brisingamen, fashioned from gold by four dwarfs. Running parallel to this story is that of Fulla and her forbidden love for a man in a rival clan. I wasn't sure how it would work out, but the two stories will intersect.
Eleventh-century Iceland was a violent place. The rules of kinship guided people's lives more than anything else--you were loyal to your family first and foremost. But religion also played an important role. Like other Medieval cultures most aspects of your life was controlled by religion. Iceland at this time, though, was a society on the cusp of change. Curiously, the change from paganism to Christianity was a peaceful one once the Icelanders realized the futility of fighting against the Christian missionaries. Literally the conversion of the island was decided by their lawgiver after a two-day vigil at something called an Althing, though pagan beliefs coexisted alongside Christian beliefs for a long time after.
I've never been one to read fairy tales or mythology, but this story was so cleverly told using Norse mythology for Freya's story and the Sagas for Fulla's that all of a sudden I'm very interested in both now. I might once have raised an eyebrow about a cloak that allowed one to fly, but it seemed completely normal to me here. It's strange how our reading tastes change and refine over time. Almost as important as the humans and gods in this story is Iceland itself--the island. Mount Hekla played almost as important a role as any of the other characters and was a driving force behind many motivations.
I was quite impressed by this novel. Unfortunately it's only been published so far in the UK, though it is definitely worth tracking down. I also want to mention how nicely the book is designed. It's a sturdy trade-size paperback (the sort with flaps that fold in). If you look closely at the cover illustration you'll see not only Mount Hekla at the top, but also flying horses and reclining figures within the swirls and curves.
This is the second book that I've read for Carl's Once Upon a Time Challenge. I'm not quite sure what to do next. Do I stick with my original list or be tempted by other books? I won a copy of The Silver Bough by Lisa Tuttle from Jaimie, which I want to read and would fit in with the challenge perfectly. I could throw all caution to the wind and just go ahead and read Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell despite its length. Or I could jump into the The Sagas of the Icelanders. In any case I'll wait a few days (and try and finish another book or two) before making a decision. Ice Land was too good a book to just jump into a new one--I think I'd rather let it all seep in a bit more.