Matthew J. Kirby


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Icefall Summary

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Icefall (2011), a young adult fantasy novel by Matthew J. Kirby, tells the story of young royals trapped in a claustrophobic fortress through the winter, and the power of storytelling to expose a traitor in their midst. Icefall was well received upon publication. Suitable for both high-school and middle-grade readers, it won the 2012 Judy Lopez Memorial Award for Children’s Literature. Kirby is the author of many fantasy books for younger readers. Most recently, he wrote a book for the ever-popular Assassin’s Creed series.

Icefall is set in medieval Norway. The protagonist, Solveig, a quiet and insecure girl, is the daughter of the Norwegian king. She has a good relationship with all her siblings, but she doesn’t feel as important as her brother, Harald, the crown prince. Knowing that he’s the king’s favorite, she’s always felt left out.

Solveig also has an older sister, Asa. Beautiful and talented, the king plans to marry Asa off to a powerful prince. Asa will secure a great fortune for the family. Solveig, who is plain, can’t help feeling insignificant beside Asa. While Harald will one day be a great warrior and Asa a famous queen, Solveig can’t see anything exciting or heroic in her future. Her only passion is for storytelling, and that won’t secure her a future.

The king’s skald, Alric, thinks differently. He believes she has a gift for telling stories, which must be cultivated. He teaches her the art of storytelling and what makes a powerful narrative. He shows her how stories can inspire and uplift everyone, and the power of the Norse sagas. For the first time, Solveig feels useful, but her sense of peace doesn’t last long.
War breaks out in a part of the kingdom, and the king rides into battle to defend his people against rebellious nobles. The king can’t risk anything happening to Harald, his only male heir. Harald, too young to fight, needs the guidance of his sisters. The king orders them all to move to a fortress in the depths of the Scandinavian mountains.

Surrounded by frozen rivers and harsh, snowy conditions, invaders will never find this stronghold. When Solveig and her siblings arrive at the fortress, they don’t expect to be there for very long. However, days turn into weeks, and before long, a major fjord freezes over entirely, blocking their way home. Until the ice melts, they’re going nowhere.

While Solveig tries her best to keep Harald entertained with her storytelling and swordplay, the household staff worries that they don’t have the resources to last the winter. The main problem is the food supply. They can’t hunt because of the location and the conditions, and there’s only so much stored food to go around. There are also many hungry warriors at the stronghold. As the food dwindles, the mood inside the fortress sours and tempers are at breaking point.

Meanwhile, another problem arises. Berserkers, otherwise known as fearsome warriors, arrive looking for shelter. Harald and the others can’t turn them away, because they make valuable allies and deadly enemies. However, Asa and Solveig both know that this doesn’t bode well for the dwindling resources around the fortress.

Things get worse when a warrior is found murdered inside the stronghold. No one knows who’s responsible, and some blame the berserkers. The berserkers, however, refuse to take the blame. They say it must be someone close to the king. No one knows whom to trust; Harald is especially vulnerable.

Solveig looks to Hake, the leader of the berserkers, for help. He’s like a father figure to her at first, because he keeps an eye on her and makes her feel safe. The more time she spends with Hake, the more convinced she is that his people aren’t responsible for the murder. She manages to convince Alric, particularly when Alric sees Hake’s fondness for Solveig’s storytelling.

As the days drag on, and with no sign of winter thawing, Solveig tells stories every night. Her stories bring everyone together, giving them something in common. However, claustrophobia is setting in, and paranoia spreads. No one feels safe; it’s up to Solveig to imbue everyone with strength and courage through her narratives. Her sharp tongue and wit eventually help her weed out the traitor—one of her own people.

Solveig is shattered when she discovers that someone she trusted acted against their king. Who is committing the murders is less important than what it teaches Solveig—adults aren’t perfect, and not everyone can be trusted. This is a significant moment for her, symbolizing her transition from childhood to adulthood. Solveig stands up for what she believes in, and she’s confident in her own self-worth.