Title: Ice Song
Author: Kirsten Imani Kasai
Genre: fantasy, post-apocalyptic, sci-fi
Series: Ice Song #1
Pages: 384 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: May 2009
Source: publishers via NetGalley
There are secrets beneath her skin.
Sorykah Minuit is a scholar, an engineer, and the sole woman aboard an ice-drilling submarine in the frozen land of the Sigue. What no one knows is that she is also a Trader: one who can switch genders suddenly, a rare corporeal deviance universally met with fascination and superstition and all too often punished by harassment or death.
Sorykah’s infant twins, Leander and Ayeda, have inherited their mother’s Trader genes. When a wealthy, reclusive madman known as the Collector abducts the babies to use in his dreadful experiments, Sorykah and her male alter-ego, Soryk, must cross icy wastes and a primeval forest to get them back. Complicating the dangerous journey is the fact that Sorykah and Soryk do not share memories: Each disorienting transformation is like awakening with a jolt from a deep and dreamless sleep.
The world through which the alternating lives of Sorykah and Soryk travel is both familiar and surreal. Environmental degradation and genetic mutation run amok; humans have been distorted into animals and animal bodies cloak a wild humanity. But it is also a world of unexpected beauty and wonder, where kindness and love endure amid the ruins. Alluring, intense, and gorgeously rendered, Ice Song is a remarkable debut by a fiercely original new writer.
This was an engrossing, thrilling, fresh, lovely read... for about 200 hundred pages of the 384 total duration. Not that I didn't enjoy the last of the novel, or that I wasn't involved in Soryk/ah's unique tale - Ice Song simply and sadly suffers (alliteration is fun!) from a problem that so many other novels of the fantasy genre also suffer: it's just too long. Three hundred eighty-four pages is far from the longest book I've read this year, but it's nothing to sneeze at, certainly. But, truthfully, it's no doorstopper in a genre with works like The Way of Kings (1007 pages), To Green Angel Tower (1104 pages), and The Bonehunters (1231 pages) easy to come by and at more than twice this one's length. The problem with Ice Song is that the length outlasts the actual plot - large sections could have been culled from the narrative (for example: halve the trk across the ice,
kill edit the entire House of Pleasure overextended bit) and this would've been a much more streamlined, clear story. Ice Song may be a long-winded but my expectations were exceeded drastically by this gender-bending adventure across the Sigue or 'The Land of the Ice Song'.
I loved a lot about this very creative and individual 'fantasy' novel, including the fact that this was clearly and awesomely not just a straight fantasy. There's the obvious signs early on that seem to set this darkly captivating novel out as clear-cut, epic fantasy: the long journey against an well-established enemy, the alien world peopled with the chimaera-like "somatics" - a genetic(?) mutation of both human and animal, and last but not least: Sorykah's strange ability as a Trader to change genders and become Soryk. But further and close reading will out many and often references to a very familiar world - which would make this more of a post-apocalyptic novel than a fantasy. References to a very modern society gone: "canned soda", the use of opium, "DNA", mutterings of a "Great Change" and a mysterious "Split"between humans and the changeling somatics, "video cameras" and most tellingly: "baseball". I also came around to believing the setting for the trek Soryak takes - the harsh and frozen Sigue - could be what we call Antartica. The sly mentions of more populated areas "up North" along with the frozen and inhospitable climate further reinforce my opinion that Sorykah's world is our own, but far in the future.
I loved the creative take the author used to build her world, and the lovely way she wrote only helped make a favorable impression. Before I got tired of the seemingly-endless (and deadly! [SPOILER] RIP sled dog team! Who knew I could harbor such anger towards a seal? And that it was a leopard seal only further reinforces my the Sigue = Antarctica theory. [end SPOILER]. This also reads like a fairytale at times, which I found both charming and odd juxtaposed against the dark nature of the novel. Kasai has an elegant way with words, and her vivid descriptions of both character and setting evoke a very detailed, real world and read.
"He smiled, wickedly, or so it seemed, for the grins of wolves always appear wicked, even when innocently offered."
Doesn't that sound like a line straight from a fairytale? A Little Red Robin Hood with a gender-bending Red Robin Hood. Too bad the rest of the story doesn't fit within the LRR story or I would make a theory on the spot.
I loved the somatics as a species. Described as a human/animal hybrids with "scrambled genetics and bizarre deformities" they are the fringe of society within this (our?) world. While some of the minglings of man and creature strain credulity at times [SPOILER] (Rava - how would you possibly hide
those that condition for years? As a drug addict?) [end SPOILER] I loved that the somatics were often shown as the most human, the most humane characters (read: Dunya, Sidra, Carac) in a world where their race are considered sport and open game for freak hunters, and the actual monsters were wholly human. Soryk/ah shares some of same plights as the somatics: isolated, hunted, and misunderstood. However, unlike the species, Sorykah is one of so few like her that many in the world have never seen a Trader. For Soryk's entire existence it was fight or flight, hide or be hunted and used as a sexual circus freak. Though born of and into a harsh life, Soryak isn't a fighter or a rebel: she's a lowkey, trying to be normal, strong, courageous and compassionate woman. Her sole motivation isn't just to kick as much ass is possible but to save her kids and get some revenge in the process. This is a compellingly strange character isolated or afraid until the birth of her similarly-affected twins - which gives credence for her out-of-character actions throughout Ice Song.
My main gripe besides the length is the House of Pleasures stay towards the final fourth of the book. Until this bit, the author took pains never to make Sorykah's 'problem' the entire focus of her characterization. Yes the character switches genders, personalities but there's much more to her than her alternating names. The House of Pleasures put Sorykah on the spot (literally) and it was not fun to read for 20+ pages. Both Sorykah's motivations for being there and her actions once there don't really fit well within the frame of the novel or her previous personality. Not to mention that both the creepy women of the House and Sorykah's display at their hands were just uncomfortable to read. I'm not a prude, I can handle sex in books just fine, but the House of Pleasures displays were too distasteful for me.
My other three slight gripes with this strangely-weird-but-not-in-a-bad-way novel:
- Sorykah's trek across the ice is too long and becomes monotonous before it ends. A lot of fantasy novels draw out the traveling portion and this is sadly one of them.
- The solution for Sorykah's confusion/memory loss is too easy and [SPOILER] I'm disappointed it involved sex. Being a Trader shouldn't just be about the sex part of her nature.
- And last but not least, Ice Song suffers from about five too many POV's. The two personalities of Sorykah - fine, perfect even. But Zarina, Meertham, Radhe, Dunya, and Carac certainly didn't need to have their own - usually just one or two instances - POV
This is a good book, though not the great one I thought I had at the start. Sadly first impressions are not always the right ones, and my problems with the latter part of Ice Song lowered this from a 4 - 4.5 to a 3.75 stars. There is a sequel attached, Tattoo, already out and published - and one I will keep my eye out for in bookstores. Though the execution might wobble a bit, Ms. Kasai's ideas are starkly original and fun, and written in a very readable, pretty prose. Fans of fantasy will enjoy this and I look forward to whatever comes next in this twisted and unique world.