I have quite mixed opinions about The Ice Lands (by Steinar Bragi, Macmillan, 2016), which is relatively rare for me: I’m normally quite good at picking books that I know I’ll like. This one I’d seen in the shop in hardback and thought it sounded interesting. I read a preview online and made a mental note to pick it up at some point. A couple weeks ago I found a proof copy in the staff room and just like that, it ended up at the top of my list, for better or for worse. A lot of my criticism of this book stems from the content and structure of the ending, so while I’ll try not to go into specifics, there may be a few spoilers near the end.
The first thing I noticed about this story, and what grabbed my attention so quickly, was the way Bragi evokes the barrenness, the very alienness of the Icelandic highlands. They’re described as a grey shifting desert, in turns blindingly sunny and fraught with sandstorms that reduce visibility to mere meters. Like the story itself, the landscape shifts around, objects seem to move, catching the characters off guard, and keeping their mental states-and their relationships with each other-unstable. Bragi paints a picture of a terrain in which it’s difficult to imagine any animal surviving, and indeed animal death-of sheep, reindeer, a dog and birds-plays a prominent part in the story. It’s an inhospitable place, in a way that gives the reader a strong feeling that the presence of humanity is wrong.
This wrongness goes hand in hand with the very unnatural violence which afflicts the animals and several of the human characters. The present-day chapters of violence and fear are interspersed with chapters cataloging the characters’ pasts, and a couple of extraordinarily frightening (to me, at least) anecdotes about a demon in brightly colored clothes. The severity and weirdness of the violence, which gradually increases as the contemporary chapters go on, contaminates the flashbacks, leaching uneasiness into them. In turn, the flashback chapters develop the characters, especially their flaws and their (often unfavorable) opinions of the other characters, which lends a pleasing tension to the contemporary chapters, complexifying their interactions set against the backdrop of the volcanic desert.
To tell the truth, I was skeptical when I read the blurb (which I’m sure the author didn’t write himself) on the back: “reckless hedonist Egill; the recovering alcoholic Hrafin; and their partners Anna and Vigdis” doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the author’s ability to write female characters. On that count I was reassured fairly quickly: Bragi delves deep into the pasts, inner thoughts and insecurities of all four main characters, women and men, and I ended up liking Anna and Vigdis-as flawed as they were-much more than the arrogant Hrafn and the childish, insecure Egill. All the characters are revealed to have intricate, often deeply screwed-up private lives, and while I wouldn’t necessarily call any of the characters likeable, they are at least interesting. On the other hand, the female characters (arguably moreso than the male characters) have no real impact on the plot, instead getting carried along with the flow, without exercising much agency. In addition, part of the ending of the book involves both of the female characters being graphically disfigured in different ways, which apart from some vague symbolism for Vigdis, doesn’t seem to contribute to the plot. This is the first sense in which I’m not sure how I feel about The Ice Lands.
The second sense has to do with the ending, which is the biggest issue-in my opinion-with the book. As the violence increased and got nastier, my willingness to keep reading became increasingly dependent on my curiosity about the identity of the perpetrator and their modus operandi; the idea that the ending of the book might tie up all the threads into a neat knot, or that there would be a mind-blowing twist and suddenly everything would make sense, was all that kept me reading in some parts. I was hoping for biological weapons, a government-run quarantine facility, even fairies from another dimension would have been pretty cool.
If you’ve read the book you’ll know that the twist-yes, there is a twist-was none of these things. If you’ve read it you’ll probably also agree with me that the twist didn’t really deepen the reader’s understanding of the rest of the story, indeed, it only obfuscated things for me. It didn’t explain the dead animals, the village, anything relating to the house, or how the perpetrator was supposed to have done the things they did. There were a lot of motifs-the demon, the tentacle-headed man, the reindeer-that were really evocative, but that just never got explained, and because of this lost their power.
This book has a lot going for it: it effectively hooks the reader and builds tension very well over the course of the story. Bragi’s writing (at least, the translation of it) is spare but evocative, painting a powerful, disturbing picture of the Icelandic countryside. On the other hand, the book fails to come together in any meaningful way at the end, instead relying on symbolism and motif (however creative) to imply a resolution without actually giving it to the reader. So while I wanted to like the book, and I was intrigued by the strangeness of it, I can’t say that I enjoyed it, and I didn’t experience that sense of closure that makes any kind of thriller or mystery so satisfying.
However, I’m really curious to know what other people think of it! I think apart from the ending, The Ice Lands is a good book, I cared about the characters and there were some very powerful scenes. Unfortunately the ending wasn’t satisfying for me, but this may not be true for everyone. I might even have missed some crucial details that did explain things, and I’m complaining for no reason. So let me know what you all think! The book is available to purchase in English here, or at your local bookstore.