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Crime in Review: Icefall

Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby

In my free evenings, I’m reading through various winners from the MWA’s 2012 Edgar Awards.  Matthew J. Kirby’s Icefall won for best juvenile mystery, and as it was a quick read, I plowed through it in a couple of sittings about two weeks ago.

The quick reaction: This is a great juvenile mystery.  Kirby has managed to craft a legitimate and compelling mystery, and at the same time he explores the role of truth in storytelling.

The long reaction: 

Icefall takes place in ancient Norway, at a small Viking fortress tucked between a glacier and a frozen bay.  The main character, Solveig, is the younger daughter of a viking king.  She, along with her older sister and younger brother and a group of trusted soldiers and servants must survive a chilly winter at the hidden fortress while the king goes to war.

It is, as was another nominee for best novel, a classic “closed set” or “locked room” mystery.  The cast of characters is limited–no one can arrive at the fortress, no one can leave the fortress.  In contrast with Anne Holt’s 1222, all of the characters know each other well; there are no mysterious strangers among them.  This probably makes it all the more devastating when it becomes evident that one of the snowbound crew is a traitor.  As you can imagine, the tension grows, the mistrust increases, and everyone begins to doubt everyone else’s loyalty.

Solveig spends much of her time attempting to identify the traitor as well, but much of the story is devoted to her internal quest for identity. She won’t be the next ruler.  She is not the attractive older princess, desired by men for political gain.  She has no evident skills with which to earn her father’s favor.  But Alric, her father’s skald (a Viking storyteller) recognizes her innate gift for observation and memory, and begins to train her in the art of telling stories.

A Viking SkaldIt is in the interactions between Solveig and Alric that I found Kirby most compelling.  Alric tells stories regardless of their truth, and has no political allegiance.  In fact, he affirms his complete lack of allegiance (either to truth or to any individual) as a necessary skill for a good storyteller.  Solveig instinctively rejects this.  As their relationship progresses, she quickly becomes an accomplished storyteller, but she cannot break from the desire to align her stories with what she believes to be true.  Before long, Alric is surprised (and surpassed) by Solveig’s skilled telling of stories, and this plays its own role in the conclusion of the tale.

I should point out that the way Kirby uses “truth” in Icefall does not refer to stories which only recount something that actually happened in this world, but that the morals and principles within a story are true in a larger, metaphysical sense.  For instance, the tale of the tortoise and the hare is not true in the sense that a talking turtle and a talking rabbit actually had a race in ancient Greece, but it is morally true and true in principle.  Steady persistence usually brings about better results than occasional bursts of energy.

I was glad for the author’s careful work on this question.  Truth and allegiance matter in storytelling.  When an author (or any creator) has no commitment to a transcending truth or set of truths, that author will always remain subject to the whims of the listener.  If she tells stories to a group that loves treachery, her stories will glorify treachery.  If she tells stories to a group that values loyalty, her stories will have loyal protagonists.  Unfortunately, many storytellers today are doing exactly this–they are allowing themselves to be driven by their audience rather than by truth.

Recently, Joshua Millburn of the Minimalists wrote about the danger of branding oneself for personal gain.  In that essay, he wrote:

When making money is the dominant driver for what you create, you are branding—carefully composing your image, neurotically considering your demographic, and obsessively tweaking your good or service to fit a customer base.

And where he mentions “making money,” we could insert, “popularity,” “acclaim,” “power,” or any other such motivator.  Storytellers must be driven by something greater.  They must be driven by truth.

My thoughts naturally turned to ministry.  Our ministry must be driven by a commitment to truth as well.  When pastors preach, when missionaries share the gospel, when men and women disciple one another, we must commit ourselves to the truth that remains true apart from the audience.  Otherwise, we too run the risk of simply scratching a popular itch, of seeking to submit Scripture to our purposes rather than submitting ourselves to Scripture.  This happens all the time–pastors presenting their own wisdom in a series of rhyming points, and then twisting passages of Scripture to fit those points.  And this then drives a culture of ministry that has no allegiance to Scripture, but only to the interests of an audience.

Icefall draws to an inevitable, surprising, and satisfying conclusion.  I won’t give away the ending here, but I’d recommend you pick it up.  If you have children that enjoy reading, I’d recommend the book for them as well, though I’d steer it towards a thoughtful twelve- or thirteen-year-old.

As always, happy reading!
Dan J.

Published inBook Reviews

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