"Ice Land" by Betsy Tobin

Pros: Beautiful, emotionally nuanced setting and characters.
Cons: I didn’t always feel like I had enough context to fully understand what was going on.
Rating: 4.75 out of 5

Review book courtesy of Penguin Group


Warned by the fates of an impending disaster, Freya embarks on a dangerous journey deep into the mountains to find a magnificent gold necklace said to have the power to alter the course of history. Meanwhile, the country is on the brink of war as the new world order of Christianity threatens the old ways of Iceland’s people,and tangled amid it all are two star-crossed lovers whose destiny draws them together – even as their families are determined to tear them apart.

Betsy Tobin’s Ice Land: A Novel blew me away. The plot, the characters, the setting, all blended together in a rich and complex tale that I simply devoured. The whole book is underpinned by emotional undercurrents that help layer and add depth, without taking the spotlight away from the plot. From the first few pages, I could feel disaster looming and it didn’t let up until the end of the book. It wasn’t edge of your seat drama but rather a quiet unease, and I was amazed at how deftly Ms. Tobin was able to keep that sensation flowing throughout the entire book.

The story is told from multiple viewpoints, but the transitions are smooth once the reader enters into the flow of the story. There were one or two in the beginning of the book that were slightly confusing because I didn’t have all of the story’s threads straight in my head yet. That being said, each of the characters has a distinct voice. Freya’s quiet strength stands in contrast to Fulla’s teenage uncertainty, caught as she is between duty and love. Indeed, much of the book revolves around the idea of what happens when duty comes in conflict with love, and each of the characters struggle with that conflict in their own ways.

Ms. Tobin has created a world where the magic and mysticism seem to grow from the interactions between the people and the land. Central to this is the way that geography is used; Iceland’s volcanic identity plays a large factor, from the hot springs that are a part of everyday life, to the idea that the land is undergoing change just as its inhabitants are changing with the influx of Christianity. There are so many layers to the entire book, and each is reflected and magnified by other elements of the book. It was like the book version of phyllo dough; each layer has an individual identity but combined they make up something even more wonderful for the harmony of all of the layers.

The only thing that gave me a little bit of trouble with this book is that I am relatively unfamiliar with Norse mythology. As I read, I could see that I was missing connections and elements that someone more versed in it would have understood better. In the author’s note at the end, Ms. Tobin explains where she got much of her inspiration, and I am tempted to look up those sources so that I can try to see more. That being said, I could still follow the plot of the book without too much trouble, but I suspect that connections between characters such as Freya and Odin would have made more sense to me if I had had more prior knowledge.

What I loved the most about this book was that as I read I realized that I wasn’t just reading to see what happened next; I wanted to see where the characters’ emotional journeys would take me. Would they choose love over family duty? What happens when one does something distasteful in order to try and do the right thing? And even through the emotional journeys, you can still feel the bleakness of trying to survive in a land so harsh that the values have had to become just as hard so that people can survive. The geography, the land, the people and the religion are so interwoven that the book feels as if it comes from a time when the world really was like that, sitting at a crossroads between the old and the new, while people fought simply to survive. This book was absolutely beautiful.

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