Reworkings of famous stories are tricky things. I’m enough of a purist that I get a little crotchety when authors’ reinventions seem more interested in grinding their axes than in putting a new twist on an old story. That’s why I love Mary Stewart’s Merlin and Mordred books, which look at Arthurian myth from a different perspective, but dislike The Mists of Avalon, which was entertaining but too focused on celebrating woman power and paganism, instead of creating three-dimensional characters. Betsy Tobin’s Ice Land was compared to The Mists of Avalon on the cover, so I was skeptical. However, knowing that marketers don’t always consider my particular bookish bugaboos when writing back cover copy, I decided to give this a try.
In Ice Land, Betsy Tobin reimagines the people of Norse myth and history. Set in the 11th century, the book focuses on Freya, one of the Aesir, the Norse pantheon of Gods, and her quest to obtain and hold onto the Brisingamen, a necklace with mysterious hold on Freya and anyone else who encounters it. Freya has a feather form that enables her to fly, but her greatest power and sometimes comfort is her sexuality.
The other principal character is Fulla, an innocent young woman who is ready for marriage. Her quest is to discover the power she has to assert herself; it is the power every young woman must discover. Other characters include dwarves, giants, Gods, and healers who support or hinder the principal women in their quests. The historical background includes the arrival of Christianity in Iceland and the end of the age of the Aesir.
I should admit up front that I know very little about Norse myth or history. Names like Freya, Odin, and Loki are familiar to me, but I had never heard of Fulla or the Brisingamen or Mount Hekla, and I know next to nothing about the coming of Christianity to Iceland. When it comes to Ice Land, this is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a good thing because I wasn’t compelled to pick apart everything Tobin did, looking for her agenda; I could just enjoy the story. It was a bad thing because I had no initial investment in the characters. When I read a story based in Arthurian or Greek myth, the names and situations already mean something to me, and it doesn’t take much to get me interested. Tobin had a bit more of an uphill battle.
The structure of the book doesn’t help much at first. The book moves back and forth between Freya and Fulla, and it takes a long time for the connections between their two stories to become clear. This didn’t bother me much because I enjoyed both stories, even though they are sometimes a little predictable. Anyone who has read a romance novel or watched a romantic comedy will identify the two women’s love interests almost from the moment they appear. But the joy of a quest novel of this type is not so much in being surprised by everything that happens but in enjoying the sights along the way. And, on this journey, I enjoyed what I saw.
Tobin tells an old story in a way that feels fresh. I can’t speak to her faithfulness to the original tales, but I can say that her retelling piqued my interest in the originals, which is certainly a good thing. Tobin’s book doesn’t have the depth of Mary Stewart’s Arthurian saga, but I’d take this over Mists of Avalon any day.