It’s hard, nowadays, to think of Iceland without thinking of a tiny island that tried—and failed—to be the financial hub of the whole world. But long before, this catastrophe Iceland was the origin of the eddas—epic poems of gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines that make the Arthurian legends pale. The landscape of restless volcanoes, hot springs and lava fields speaks of deep passions. Tobin uses those old Norse tales, Iceland’s history and even her geography to tell a gripping story of destiny and free will in Ice Land.
The story takes place around 1000 A.D., through the eyes of Freya, a beautiful aristocrat with interesting powers—more on them later—and Fulla, an orphan who’s been raised by her stern but loving grandfather. Eventually their lives entwine and their brief association forces both women to make crucial choices about their futures.
Tobin calls her book a “love letter to Iceland” and she shows it in often uncommonly beautiful writing, as in this passage describing a volcanic eruption: “The lava overflows in a myriad of hot red fingers down the sides of Hekla’s flank, forming a web of bloody rivers against the blackened rock.” The volcano did indeed erupt around the time of the novel, and Tobin is adept at weaving the mythical and quotidian together. Freya, for example, is not only a human woman but the chief Norse goddess. She retains her falcon feather cloak, which enables her to fly, the Brisingamen, an impossibly beautiful necklace, and her cats, even though they’re not seen pulling a chariot. Her kinfolk, the Aesir, don’t live across a rainbow bridge, but on farmsteads in Iceland’s unforgiving interior. Dwarves live underground and belligerent giants live in Jotunheim, but they’re regular humans who are shorter or taller than average. Tobin also has a waspish sense of humor. Describing one of her lovers, who could transform into a boar, Freya recalls him as “exceptionally handsome, when not rooting about in the earth.”
Tobin’s characters—tough, vulnerable, foolish and wise as they are—make Ice Land a joy to read. And who knows? Maybe Iceland will take over the world economy one day.
Arlene McKanic writes from South Carolina.