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Monday, May 18, 2009

"Ice Song" by Kirsten Imani Kasai (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Kirsten Imani Kasai Website
Kirsten Imani Kasai Blog

Order "Ice Song" HERE(US) and HERE(Europe/Overseas)
"Ice Song" at Random House with an excerpt to come soon

INTRODUCTION: I have heard of "Ice Song" a while ago but the blurb did not excite me that much. However when the book fell into my hands mostly by chance, I opened it and I was hooked by the beautiful writing style from the first page so I put aside all the other books I was reading at the time and finished this one first.

Though "Ice Song" is not that long at 372 pages, it packs a lot of imagery and emotion so it warrants a very close reading and I let it dictate the pace of my reading to fully enjoy it. There are quite a few passages I revisited both when reading it and after finishing it and "Ice Song" became a strong unexpected personal favorite of 2009 and a notable debut.

OVERVIEW: On a future Earth or an alternate Earth like planet, ravaged by environmental degradations as well as pure and simple greed, there is a fast rate of genetic mutations in the human population which led to the existence of the "somatics", the "Traders" and other wide variation of the "normal person" and of course to the fear, loathing and persecution that "the other" has
always engendered throughout history.

The "somatics" are people with mostly animal genes/mutations, the "octopus" woman Rava, the horned queen of the forest Sidra and various others that feature prominently in the novel.

Rare and highly prized in some quarters, "Traders" are people that have a genetic makeup that allows them to switch genders, change that mostly happens involuntarily under stress. While most "traders" are infertile and retain the memories of their dual persona, Sorykah Minuit is different in both respects. She is the mother of baby twins, not yet weaned and in care of devout babysitter Nels while she earns enough to support all.

Under stress Sorykah becomes Soryk, but neither remembers the other and during the novel we get glimpses of their strange past of waking up in unfamiliar places and eking out a mostly precarious living in consequence. Sorykah is the dominant personality and she is the one that got educated, got the skills to work on the Sothern Island/Continent of Sigue for "the Company", but Soryk tends to surface at inconvenient times and assuming memory loss, carry on with "his life".

Sigue is the Ice Song land, where the ice plates are grinding against each other and create haunting melodies that fascinate and attract people. The melodies of ice are almost impossible for people to reproduce or record though many try.

The mainland which almost touches Sigue at the inhospitable Floe Fields is the setting of most of the action with its Erun city and forest, as well as the nearby Isle of Mourning place of the famous House of Pleasure manor.

The Collector is a mysterious old man that has a fortress/manor somewhere in the middle of the dark forest and sends his minion, monstrous part-walrus Meertham to bring him "unusual" somatics to experiment on them. Meertham has the unusal talent of sensing "the other" even in seemingly normal humans so he homes in on the suckling twins Ayeda and Leander which are travelling to their mother's new home in Ostara on Sigue.

When Meertham "collects" the twins, Sorykah is determined to do all she can to get her children back. The whys and hows about the Collector are slowly revealed in the book together with a lot of back story that adds a lot of depth to the very imaginative setting.

"Ice Song" stands at 372 pages divided into 33 imaginatevly named chapters. There is a list of characters at the beginning and on Ms. Kasai Website there is a map of Sigue and surrounding areas, as well as a "dream casting for a putative movie" which will give you an idea of how the author imagines her characters. The narration alternates between Sorykah's quest and the mostly nefarious doings in the Collector's palace. The ending is very good and makes the novel a complete standalone with ample scope for a planned sequel.

ANALYSIS: "Ice Song" is a special book, one that in my opinion will engender strong reaction in readers based on how they like Ms. Kasai visual, imagery laden style.

Despite the roughly 370 page count, the novel reads like a 500 or longer one, and I say this in a very positive sense since I love "fat" books as you can see from even a cursory check of my reviews. The reason "Ice Song" feels like a longer book but with no bloat is because reading it means imagining every scene, hearing every sound, feeling every emotion, so vividly are they described for us.

From the bleak and violent
Ostara wth its "somatic" bars that rough and violent "normal" humans raid for sport, to the stark but majestic ice fields of Sigue, travel by dogsled and later to the mainland with its wonders, every place feels "so real" that you have to stop and enjoy it to the full.

While for a large stretch of the novel we follow Sorykah and her desperate quest, Soryk starts appearing more and more frequently as the novel progresses and the changes between the two are handled in a very natural, believable way.

The doings in the Collector's manor seen mostly through the sad and tragic figure of the "Dog-Faced" girl Dunya play well against the main thread of the book, while the Collector remains a suitably remote menacing presence, though we slowly glimpse his true back-story and realise that there is more depth even to him than to a stock villain.

The plot is fairly straightforward but the people and places encountered by Sorykah/Soryk are quite unusual and the interactions kept the novel from flagging even for a page for me, so I read it as fast as "it allowed" me, putting it down only when I *really had to*.

The one weakness that shows that "Ice Song" is a debut is in the author's telling us a lot of the back-story rather than weaving it naturally in the story, however that is a minor niggle compared to the major achievements of the novel.

Debut novels sometimes suffer from a lack of "balance" when the author follows two or more threads, but her true interest lays in only one of them and for a while I thought that the action in the Collector manor is a bit superfluous for this book; however the way the two threads come together at the end made me reconsider and on re-reading I found the secondary storyline important for the novel, though the main attraction is still Sorykah/Soryk's journey.

A strange but wonderful novel and highly, highly recommended "Ice Song" is a book that establishes Ms. Kasai as an author to follow and get any new book asap. I am very interested in the announced sequel since I want to see more of Sigue, Sorykah/Soryk and the rest of the wonderful characters and places imaginatively created by Ms. Kasai.

Note: Graciously answering my query for more information, Ms. Kasai told me the following (reproduced with the author's permission):

Kirsten Imani Kasai:

""Ice Song" was originally more than 350,000 words. I cut nearly 200 pages from the novel, some of which ended up in the sequel, "Tattoo", and some of which I plan to post on my site as 'deleted scenes.' "Tattoo" picks up right where "Ice Song" ends. There's also a third book, "Saudade", in the works. I just finished the ms for "Tattoo" and turned it in last week, so no idea about the publication date yet, sometime next year."

"Tattoo" coming in 2010:

"The signs are everywhere. The night train prowls, picking off somatics. Ostara is caving in and cracks in the ice threaten to destroy the Sigue. Only Rava, an opium-addled octameroon, knows how to restore balance to the Sigue if she can stay clean long enough to do it."

"There's a Yahoo discussion group for "Ice Song", which I hope to use to generate questions for book clubs and answer questions about the novel.

I'm also working on a couple children's books at the moment, and have a lot of characters clamoring for a chance to tell their stories, so I'm writing as much as my schedule allows at the moment."


Harry Markov said...

This one is a keeper. Just learning that the land creates music made me want to own this book... It's great, when fantasy gets another trumb card and shows that it can supply for an unusual story not encountered before. :)

Liviu said...

As I mentioned in the comment to the Fall Thanes review, last week I read 6 books, 5 of which are new 09 titles so I could review here if I so choose, and of all I chose Ice Song for review *precisely* because I loved it the most of the 5; impressive debut, some flaws as mentioned but not more than usual for a debut and I loved the style

Anonymous said...

I'm reading this right now. I had the wonderful experience to hear the author read a passage when I went to her signing at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore. I'll post about the whole experience once I finish reading the book.

Liviu said...

I hope you like this wonderful book; I was very impressed with Ms. Kasai answering my query for extra information on such a short notice and I hope Ice Song gets the success it so well deserves.


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