There’s a certain breed of middle grade fiction novel for kids that defies easy categorization. Call them fantasies without fantasy. These strange little novels pop up from time to time encouraging readers to believe that they are reading about something fantastical without having to throw magic spells, ghosts, or singing teacups into the mix. Frances Hardinge’s Fly by Night and Fly Trap fit this description. Ditto any book that really involves an alternate world. Now when I received my copy of Matthew Kirby’s Icefall I had an inkling that it would definitely be that kind of book. This notion was confirmed when I flipped to the first entry in my advanced reader’s galley and read the following classifications. They call it: “Action & Adventure”, “Science Fiction, Fantasy, Magic”, and “Mysteries & Detective Stories”. Highly amusing since there isn’t much in a way of science fiction or fantasy or magic here. Action, Adventure, Mysteries, and Detective Stories though? Tons! And entirely worth discovering too.
It’s tough being the middle child. Solveig knows this, but it doesn’t make her life any easier. Neither a beauty like her older sister Asa nor . . . well . . . male like her younger brother Harald, Solveig has never attracted the attention of her father, the king. Now with their nation at war, the three children have been sent to a distant mountain fortress to wait out the days until the battle’s end. As they wait they are joined by their father’s guard, the highly unreliable and frightening berserkers. At first Solveig is put off by their manners and actions, but as time goes on she grows to trust them. That’s part of the reason she’s so shocked when someone attempts to poison them all off. Though the community in this fortress is small, someone amongst them is a traitor. And in the midst of her training to be a storyteller, Solveig must discover the culprit, even if he or she is someone she dearly loves.
Now when I said that this book didn’t contain so much as a drop of magic within its pages I was being facetious. Truth be told, aside from the whole alternate world building Kirby does allow Solveig some premonitions in the form of dreams. And yes, the dreams seem to foretell what will occur in the future. Admitted. That said, I get the feeling that Mr. Kirby included the dreams almost as an afterthought. To be perfectly blunt, they come right out. Their sole purpose is to foreshadow, and foreshadow they do. There are certain fictional tropes for kids that just rub me the wrong way, like prophecies and the like. Portentous dreams, as it happens, don’t bother me one way or another unless they rate too much importance. In Icefall Kirby grants his characters’ dreams just the right amount of attention. Not too much. Not too little.
The book would actually make a fairly effective murder mystery play, should someone wish to adapt it. Like any good murder mystery the suspects are limited, cut off from the rest of the world. Scenes can only be set in the woods or in the buildings, and not much of anywhere else. Then there’s the whole And Then There Were None aspect. Anyone could be a suspect, and Kirby does a stand up job at not making the culprit too easy to identify. A big smarty pants adult, I thought I’d figured it out partway through, but it turned out that I was only solving a portion of the mystery. Well played, Mr. Kirby, sir. I should probably be more upset that Solveig never really solves the mystery unless forces beyond her control take over, but surprisingly I didn’t really mind. For me, the focus of this book isn’t the mystery aspect, but Solveig’s own personal journey.
I like to keep my ear to the ground and pay attention to the books that garner a bit of buzz. And Icefall, much to my surprise and pleasure, has legs. Both adults and kids have really responded to Kirby’s writing here. Considering that we’re not dealing with a notebook novel or a story involving witches, wizards, vampires, zombies, or the future in any way, shape, or form, this is interesting to me. Who would have thought that a story involving a Viking-like girl with low self-esteem would garner such love? I credit Kirby’s writing. Though the murder mystery is a good way to lure in potential readers, the real strength to the tale lies in the blossoming of Solveig. Her desire to become a storyteller is there, but this isn’t a book where the heroine decides she wants something and then shows an immediate and natural acuity for it. Solveig struggles with her gift, and fights to improve it. Better still, Kirby has the wherewithal to hinge his plot on Solveig’s growth. What she learns in the course of the story is directly responsible for the story’s climax. To wit, this is a novel where the protagonist begins the book with an apologetic “I am only Solveig” and ends with a strong, no nonsense, “I am Solveig”.
Long story short (so to speak) when reading Icefall you believe in Kirby’s characters, relationships, setting, and the ability of the heroine to learn and grow. Mr. Matthew Kirby debuted as a middle grade novelist last year with his original and amusing The Clockwork Three. That, compared to this, was a book with epic intentions but was, in its way, very much a debut novel. With Icefall, Mr. Kirby’s writing has matured. There’s a depth to it that sets the book apart from the pack. This is a story that stays with the reader for long periods of time. Maybe folks will find it a bit predictable or slow at times, but with its reliable writing and killer ending (literally), this is a book that establishes Mr. Kirby as a writer to watch closely. I like where this fellow is going and I like this novel. And so will the kids.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
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