Welsh author Catherine Fisher strikes gold in an icy, shimmering new fantasy, "Snow-Walker." With likable characters and vidid writing, Fisher demonstrates her talents in the arena of Norse mythology, filled with shapeshifting wolf-men, soul-stealing ghosts, and icy witches.
Jessa is horrified when she learns that the Jarl (a sort of king-chieftain) has exiled her to Thrasirshall -- where Kari, the son of the Jarl and his cold, evil wife Gudrun, lives in complete isolation. He's rumored to be a monster. But when Jessa arrives, she finds that Kari is not a monster -- but a lonely young boy who has the power to destroy his scheming sorceress mother, and has been sent away because of that.
After the death of the Jarl, Gudrun vanishes, and a new Jarl, Wulfgar, is chosen. And Kari vanishes back to the north for a few years, honing his magic abilities. But with power comes greater fear. Kari fears becoming like the evil Gudrun, and others fear his dark magic. Even Wulfgar begins to doubt him, especially when Kari is accused in a prophecy by a priest.
But Kari and Jessa have more than just accusations to deal with. A monstrous, bearlike creature is coming to the Jarlshold, with Wulfgar as its target. And Wulfgar's bride's soul is stolen by Gudrun. Kari and his loyal friends band together to defeat the evil Snow-Walker -- but is the good in Kari enough to keep him from becoming like Gudrun?
The first book by Catherine Fisher, "The Oracle Betrayed," was a tepid mix of Greek and Egyptian cultures. She fares much better with the rich Norse mythology, against a backdrop of monsters, snow, ice, and sorcerous people with eyes like bits of ice. Werewolves, armies of dead men, villages on lakes, and spirits conjured out of loneliness and misery are only part of this story.
It's actually like a trilogy of novellas, each a little over 160 pages long -- "The Snow-Walker's Son," "The Empty Hand," and "The Soul Thieves." With plenty of room to stretch, Fisher's writing is tense, descriptive, poetic, and simple. Her descriptions of magical beasts and phantoms are spellbinding. The main problem is that the climactic battles in "Soul Thieves" and "Snow Walker's Son" seem to finish too quickly and cleanly, although the finale is a satisfying one.
Though the strong-willed Jessa is the lead character, Kari is the center of the novel -- a boy who never had a normal life, and has a lingering fear of being turned to evil. The supporting characters like Wulfgar, Kari's loyal guardian Brochael, crippled thrall Hakon and others are well-drawn. Gudrun isn't given much dimension (okay, she's evil and cruel, we got it), but her chilly plotting is well-done.
Catherine Fisher is well-suited to the robust Norse legends of the snowy north, and the solid "Snow-Walker" is an excellent fantasy read for adults and teens alike.