Ice Land, By Betsy Tobin

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The Independent Culture

The gods of Iceland, the Aesir, are under threat, along with Iceland itself. But the threats differ according to whether you are a god or a human. The gods are threatened by the coming of Christianity; humans by the angry volcano, Hekla. Freya, daughter of both the Aesir and their supernatural cousins, the Vanyar, must find the fabled necklace of Brisingamen, to change the fate of the island and of the world.

Fulla, a young woman betrothed to someone she does not love, has her own quest, for Vili, her real love. The laws of 11th-century Iceland hold that kinship is more precious than private passion and Fulla's desire wreaks horrible havoc. It may be, after all, that the destinies of gods and humans are more closely bound than either had suspected, and that the two threats are one.

To suggest that the gods were endangered by the coming of missionaries is a premise more daring than at first it appears, since many have suggested – not least Halldór Laxness, Iceland's Nobel laureate – that Christianity never really took root in Iceland's volcanic soil. The author carries off this double bluff with great style. The prose does its job, too – its job being not to get in the way of an extraordinary reworking of myth.

If Freya and Fulla stand out as miracles of characterisation, the land itself remains the novel's most impressive figure. Iceland has long been recognised as the guardian of Nordic myth. This book shows us not so much why as how. Tobin captures this world in all its complexity: the fierce feuds, the slyness and warmth of a people who will sacrifice a daughter to kin, and slit the throat of kin for the sake of a stranger. Here is a world where magic and mystery rise from the currents of nature and not in defiance of it. The land itself, and the sea and sky surrounding, engender myth as naturally as the salmon spawns.

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