Even within the wonderful set of wintery books I’ve been reading this January, ‘The Ice Palace’ stands out as exceptional. For magic, fear and disturbing ambiguity, I’d be surprised if it didn’t make it into my top reads for 2017.
The book begins in the evening, as an eleven year old girl makes her way through a dark forest. Suddenly, there’s a loud noise:
‘It was from the ice on the big lake down below. And it was nothing dangerous, in fact it was good news: the noise meant that the ice was a little bit stronger. It thundered like a gunshot, blasting long fissures, narrow as a knife-blade, from the surface down into the depths – yet the ice was stronger and safer each morning. There had been an unusually long period of severe frost this autumn.
Biting cold. But Siss was not afraid of the cold. It wasn’t that. She had started at the noise in the dark, but then she stepped out steadily along the road.‘
Siss is on her way to visit Unn, a newcomer to region who lives through the forest and past the lake. We know almost nothing about Unn, except that she has no parents, refuses to join in games at at school and exerts an incredibly strong influence over Siss. The compelling attraction between the two girls, one an outsider the other the most popular girl in school, is what has drawn Siss into the frightening, biting cold of the icy autumn evening.
The whole of the short novella plays out as a tense psychological drama, a shattering coming of age story, and a fantastic evocation of an almost supernaturally powerful winter environment. By the time ice melts, Siss’ apparently safe world will have been destroyed, revealed as no less permanent than the frightening night sounds it produces.
And this world is magical. At its heart is an ‘ice palace’ created by a frozen waterfall. The descriptions of this memorising creation are as powerful and enthralling as anything in Morgenstern’s ‘The Night Circus‘, and it exerts a similarly hypnotic effect on both characters and reader. If you haven’t read ‘The Ice Palace,’ I recommend you do so immediately. If you have, I can’t imagine you need my reminder to read it again. It’s a frightening world, but the only possible response is to agree with the first visitor to the frozen enchantment ‘She was completely absorbed by the palace, so stupendous did it appear to her … nothing had been more right than to go there.’