Betsy Tobin’s Ice Land is the dual story of the Norse goddess Freyja, and the young mortal girl Fulla.
Though the goddess of love, Freyja has been unlucky in affairs of her own heart. When Freyja senses stirrings of doom, she goes on a journey to recover a necklace that may help prevent Ragnarok. Meanwhile, Fulla is the last of her bloodline and heir to viscous feud between her family and the neighboring one. But as she comes of marrying age, she finds herself drawn to her rival’s son, the son, in fact, of her father’s killer. A sense of the end of the world carries in both stories: Freyja’s Ragnarok paralleling with the conversion of Iceland to Christianity in Fulla’s. The chapter interludes are passages from the Norns and they blend mythology with geology in discussing the fate of the world, blending imagery of plate tectonics with a sense of magic.
The craft in this book is evident. Details of the old Icelandic way of life slip in seamlessly to enhance the atmosphere without overly calling attention to themselves. Similarly, the myth of the Brisingamen is woven through in a way that does not control the story but provides nice moments of recognition for those familiar with the myths. Making its own twist on the old stories, the novel also looks at what it is like for Freyja and the other Aesir to be the subjects of myths and the source of so many rumors, hopes, and tales.
The settings evocatively come to life, their descriptions often lyrical, and the author is especially talented at conveying characters’ emotions through physical details. It is very easy to put yourself inside the scene, to see the characters and places.
Better still, there are no throwaway characters (see SPOILER below for specific example). Minor side characters are treated as real people, with emotional complexity that gets to shine through.
What the novel suffers from is pacing. Early on, Freyja is advised to find something gold, held by the Brising dwarves. This proves to be the necklace. However, it is never made clear how the necklace is supposed to help prevent Ragnarok and so we lose a sense of urgency and lose the excitement that would come from the hero strategizing and striving clearly to make their plan come through. This is instead a more winding story, where Freyja’s journey sets her on a new one, undertaken in the shadow of the someday-impending doom. The vague timeline adds to an already dim sense of stakes. I realized mid-way through that I did not truly fear for any of the characters.
As a story, then, it is a quiet one, meandering through an interesting world and told with evocative descriptions. I liked it, but wasn’t deeply gripped.
Rolf’s role in the story is merely to present a safe but untempting alternative to marrying Vili; he’s here to be a groom who’s a bit too old, or who simply isn’t the guy Fulla really wants. And yet, we get to see him as a real character, and glimpse into his heart with lines from him like, “Am I never to love and be loved in return?”
“He already feels uneasy, as if he is not in control of his actions. It is a sensation so familiar that it unnerves him.”
“It is almost midnight when I reach the deserted spring, set deep in the mountains. A nearly full moon sits low on the horizon. It lights the black face of the water, enough to see the steam rising form its surface in treacherous wisps.”
“But even as he speaks, he is conscious that his words mock them both. For a man whose wife is driven to suicide has surely failed by any standard.”