There's nothing like a good dose of Nordic saga to take me off to Planet Escape, throw in some mythological improbabilities that successfully suspend my disbelief and I'm in reading heaven. If a book manages to scoop me up and take me with it, the reading experience is like no other.
I know plenty couldn't see the point of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, but I could and did and from the minute the gargoyles started talking in York Minister I was away with the faeries.
Likewise Ice Land by Betsy Tobin published by Short Books has done exactly the same. Surprisingly The Daily Telegraph rarely seems to review books I've read these days except for this one and Sinclair McKay makes a good point. When a writer sets off into this territory it really can all go horribly wrong very quickly
'...hit one wrong note...and the whole thing could collapse into Python...any hint of stiltedness in the dialogue, the game could well have been up.'
Perhaps it is also dependent on the exact reading mood being in place when you turn the first page?
Short Books, having turned their hand to a fiction list, have made a strong start with Betsy Tobin, an American who deserted the Mid-West for England in 1989 and has two other novels to her name.
Set in 1000 AD, Freya is the mythical woman, blessed with the cloak of feathers granting the powers of flight who must search for the Brisingamen, a gold necklace of profound and stunning beauty.To take possession she must sell herself to the four dwarf brothers who have made the necklace.
This storytelling weaves intricately around the life and loves of Fulla, a young woman raised by her grandfather, whose quest for happiness must pass through trials aplenty before it is fulfilled and the whole is set against the turbulent backdrop of a land beset by geological upheaval alongside an ongoing spiritual upheaval. Traditional worship of the gods challenged by the arrival of Christianity and the zealous use of violence to coerce a bemused conversion. In the end Betsy Tobin tells us the pragmatic Icelandic people, realising the inevitability make an outwardly peaceful transition whilst continuing to practice their own beliefs behind closed doors.
If that all sounds a bit sparse I can only apologise because unusually I didn't stop to make a single note or underlining as I read. Normally I've got quotes and thoughts bursting off a blank page at the front but not here. I just picked the book up, jumped in and read it right through, carried along on that wave of ancient Nordic storytelling that kept me immersed in the spell until I had turned the final page. If I'd stopped to analyse it all I think the magic might have dissipated and somehow I couldn't bear the thought, this was one of those pure cover-to-cover reading experiences.
There's an interesting few pages of author's note at the end which credits sources and inspiration for the book including Ragnorak, the prophecy of creation and destruction which underpins the myths and and almost certainly the unusual and destructive geology of Iceland. I'm almost persuaded I should go off in search of the original Icelandic Sagas because it's difficult not to be infected by Betsy Tobin's love and enthusiasm for her subject but let's not get too carried away, perhaps I'm happy to settle for a novel that writes of and around them so well and carefully does all that work of imagination and interpretation for me.
A good read and one to just settle down and enjoy whilst looking very carefully at that amazing cover design each time you pick the book up, the longer I looked the more I saw.