Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Ice Land: Of Valkyries and Volcanoes

If I had no other knowledge of the time period and place, here’s what I would know about medieval Scandinavia after reading Betsy Tobin’s new historical fantasy, Ice Land: 1) men were brutal; 2) arranged marriages were unhappy; 3) Asgard was some prime Icelandic real estate before the volcano Hekla chose to blow her top; 4) being a Norse goddess – even the goddess of love – was not all it was cracked up to be; and finally, in reference to #4, 5) the feathers were a nice perk, though.

Tobin’s novel is both imaginative and derivative. The Norse pantheon is, ironically, less known to English-speaking audiences than their ancient Greek and Roman counterparts. Tobin attempts to bring the Aesir to life, also ironically, just as they are about to fade from the planet, with the coming of Christianity to Europe’s last pagan outpost, Iceland. Freya, the Norse goddess of love, beauty and loss, is the first person narrator of the adventure. However, her personal reminiscences are mixed with the omniscient narration focused on other main characters: Fulla, a beautiful young woman from a traditional pagan (or godi) family, in love with the young man whose father killed her father (an old motif, but one sure to cause tension); Dvalin, half dwarf/half Aesir, marked by Brando-like internal struggle; Hogni, one of the last of the godi, trying to secure his granddaughter’s future in a world he will not see, and cannot understand. The change in narrations does serve to give us different views of Freya, but it also means that the book is at times disjointed.

The short passages narrated by The Norns (Norse goddesses of destiny) are particularly dissonant, as they mix modern knowledge of plate tectonics and vulcanology with the mystic ability to see the future when explaining Hekla’s machinations. These interludes stood out as particularly silly, frankly, and not up to the rest of Tobin’s accomplishment.

The book is imaginative because Tobin presents us with a very different version of the Aesir than might be expected. They have powers that humans do not have, certainly – humans don’t go flying around in falcon forms unless one of the Aesir is willing to take them along for the ride. But Tobin makes them far more human than godly, with their power based on their own astute public relations as much as their exceptional gifts. When asked by a young dwarf to tell him about her people, she struggles:

Where do I begin? With our deceit, our jealousies, our failures? Or with our own imagined triumphs, the heroic tales we’ve told each other for so long we now believe them to be true…I realize that the lines between truth and falsehood have long ago become blurred in my mind. (p. 140)

The book is derivative because it harkens back on so many levels to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s amazing The Mists of Avalon. Small band of true pagan believers? Check. Forced baptisms? Violent and greedy men bent on using the new religion to consolidate power? Check and check. Misunderstood humanoids of extraordinary power and beauty at their fin de siècle? Check. Romance despite the backdrop of complete cultural and social revolution? Check. In fact, Tobin plucks Asgard right out of the heavens and plunks it down in a mysterious Icelandic valley that can only be reached through a veil of water. (Hello, Morgaine Le Fay, here! The drippy trip to the magical world was my calling card – can you please send that back?) And while the placement of Asgard subjects it to physical, rather than metaphysical, decimation, the threat to the magical world permeates the book, just as in MofA.

The book also suffers from major lapses in continuity. Iceland was settled late in European history (the late 9th century, by most accounts) by disaffected Norwegians and Swedes who presumably took their culture, including their gods, with them. Why then the placement of Asgard in Iceland? Were the gods and goddesses commuting to Trondheim from their summer places near Reykjavik during most of their pagan reign? It’s silly to quibble with a fantasy, I understand, but that breech in historicity was so clear that I found it distracting. Another lapse involves the overlapping of two significant incidents in Icelandic history that actually happened 100 years apart. It’s the kind of thing that makes my inner medieval history major cringe.

Ice Land is a very decent beach read, especially if you’re dreaming about cooler climes in summer. It moves quickly and lightly, and the plot is interesting enough to keep you turning the pages. But if the literature critic from The Times of London really called it “Not just a good story, but one of the greatest,” as noted on the back cover, he or she seriously needs to expand the library. I think I’ll help by sending a copy of The Mists of Avalon.
This book counts for both the Goodreads Seasonal Reading Challenge and the Scandinavian Challenge. Can't fit it into No Ruts though, as I've definitely read something like it before!

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