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Tales of Two Solveigs

Posted: Wed September 5th, 2012, 8:12 am
by annis
I've recently read two novels aimed at the children’s/YA market which each have their own distinctive flavour but quite coincidentally share some striking similarities. Both were published in 2011 and are set during the Viking era. Both are coming-of-age stories, but with a difference - the usual hero is replaced by a heroine just on the cusp of adolescence. Both heroines have lost their mothers and their fathers play a powerful role in their lives. In both cases the heroine is named Solveig.

Icefall is by American author Matthew Kirby, a relative newcomer – this is just his second published novel. Although the time and place are not specified, the setting is clearly Viking era Scandinavia, before the advent of Christianity. Kirby’s Solveig is plain and quiet and although she longs for his attention, her father rarely notices her. Icefall is a thriller, where the dynamic of the story is driven not by adventure, but by a mystery within an enclosed setting. Kirby seamlessly weaves elements of Norse myth and legend into his tale about a young girl who finds her own place in the world as a skald, a storyteller; the keeper of memories and shaper of legends.

Bracelet of Bones by British author Kevin Crossley-Holland is set in the 11th century, and follows the adventures of a young girl who is very close to her father. This Solveig is beautiful –slender and golden-haired - and the apple of her father’s eye. When he leaves her behind with her step-mother in Norway and joins the Byzantine Emperor’s Varangian Guard under the captaincy of Harald "Hardrada" Sigurdsson, she runs away from home and takes the dangerous road to Constantinople to find him. Crossley-Holland also weaves elements of Norse myth and legend into his story, and skilfully echoes the poetic language of the Viking sagas. Crossley-Holland has written many children’s novels (Gatty's Tale is on my YA "best of" list) and is a well-known scholar of Anglo-Saxon and Norse cultures - his Penguin Book of Norse Myths is regarded as a classic. Bracelet of Bones is the first in a series titled The Viking Sagas, and the second volume, Scramasax, has just been released. I enjoyed this story, and look forward to the sequel.

Both these novels are evocative and beautifully written, but my personal prize goes to the dark horse, Icefall. It's a word-of-mouth favourite - it was recommended to me by a couple of people who share my tastes in reading and I’ve been recommending it myself to all and sundry since. I’m not surprised to find that it’s picked up a couple of awards - this is one of those special stories that speak directly to the heart. Although ostensibly written for a middle-school readership, it has a warmth, emotional maturity and profundity that will appeal to readers of any age.

I’ve just posted a review of Icefall for the YA section of Margaret’s Historical Novels Info website:
http://www.historicalnovels.info/Icefall.html

Posted: Wed September 5th, 2012, 10:16 am
by parthianbow
I've heard of Icefall - where, I cannot remember, but thanks for the reminder about it, Annis. Another book to buy!

Posted: Thu September 6th, 2012, 1:56 pm
by EC2
I will look out for Icefall, thanks Annis. I very much enjoy Crossly Holland's work and thought Gatty's tale was very good - some inaccuracies, most noticeably a medieval ship with a wheel and a cabin (??!!!) but beautifully written.

Posted: Fri September 7th, 2012, 4:12 am
by annis
Gatty is such a forthright and indomitable little figure, you can't help but find her appealing :)

Crossley-Holland's Solveig is a more complex, mysterious character - she is a bit fey, and has hidden depths which I feel are yet to be revealed.

Kirby's Solveig also has hidden talents which are locked away out of reach by lack of confidence and fear of failure. Learning that fear is something to be challenged is the key: "Fear is something to be mastered, not denied"

I like the way Kirby not only uses Norse myth and legends, but also echoes other fairy stories, like Beauty and the Beast and The Ugly Ducklng. The late Maeve Binchy once said "I don't have ugly ducklings turning into swans in my stories. I have ugly ducklings turning into confident ducks." Kirby's Solveig doesn't miraculously turn into a beautiful swan, but more realistically becomes a confident duck as she finds ways to tap into and develop her own strengths.