Fulfilling the wishes of the Fates, the Norse goddess Freya becomes enchanted by a necklace crafted by four dwarves. The price they set for the necklace is high: Freya must spend a night with each of them. From this myth grows Betsy Tobin’s Ice Land.
Tobin weaves Freya’s quest for the necklace with that of a young Icelandic girl’s for love. Fulla lives with her grandfather in an Iceland at the turn of the first millennium. It is time for her betrothal, and, as in all good love stories, Fulla finds herself drawn to a man from a family who opposes her own.
Connecting the tales of the two women is Dvalin, a half-dwarf who was one of the creators of Freya’s necklace and who is on his own quest to heal his sister. Away from his home when Freya strikes her bargain with his brothers, he changes the terms for his part of the necklace and uses Freya to guarantee safe passage through the land of the giants.
At first glance, Tobin’s novel may seem like yet another in a long line of Tolkien-wanna-be fantasy novels. However, it is anything but. The goddess Freya is nothing more than a woman with access to certain powers and a benefactor of myths and legends told about her people. Although she owns a cloak that lets her change into a falcon, her story and the others don’t depend on magic.
The half-dwarf is viewed as a short man, and the giants are only a few heads taller than normal men. Asgard isn’t located across a rainbow bridge but through a crevasse in a mountain. Human emotions and deeds are what drive Ice Land.
The strength of Tobin’s writing lies in her handling of daily life. When Fulla and her grandfather attend an annual festival, the reader gets a look at how early Icelanders likely lived. Christianity is beginning to alter the religious landscape of Iceland; a new law demands everyone be baptized and follow Christ publicly, although they are allowed to practice the old religion in private.
The world around the characters is changing and the three main characters find themselves caught up in the transition. The success of Fulla and Freya’s quests depends on their ability to adapt to the changing world, even when the changes are heralded by natural disasters.
Ice Land changes viewpoints with every chapter, focusing on a different character’s experiences and outlooks. Freya’s chapter is written in the first-person point of view, with the others in the more removed third-person point of view.
Although changing viewpoints from character to character works, the change from first- to third-person can be confusing and doesn’t seem to serve a purpose for the novel. Fulla and Dvalin’s stories hold the reader’s interest just as much as Freya’s, and the three characters work as equal protagonists.
However, that may be the only drawback of Ice Land. Otherwise, Tobin’s writing shines. The novel is paced slowly, allowing the reader to absorb early Iceland and know the characters fully. Even minor characters like Sky, the mute giant boy, and Gerdling, Dvalin’s youngest brother, shine in the novel.
Ice Land does not adhere strictly to any of the Norse legends about Freya and her necklace or Fulla’s grandfather, Hogni. Instead, Tobin takes the best of the legends and of the Icelandic Sagas and creates a detailed, interesting world of her own that is well worth reading.