I waited to review Catherine Fisher's The Snow Walker Trilogy all in one go because the three books are relatively short (under 200 pages each), so if you've been wondering at the lack of book reviews this week, here's a large part of the reason why (the other part being the Carnival on Tuesday, of course !).
The Snow-Walker's Son
Young Jessa is horrified when she learns that the Jarl (the king-chieftain of her people) is exiling her and Thorkil, because their dead fathers supported Wulfgar instead of him for the role of Jarl. They are exiled to Thrasirshall; there Kari, the son of the Jarl and his cold, evil witch of a wife, Gudrun, lives in isolation apart from Brochael, his carer. Kari is rumoured to be a monster as Thorkil tells Jessa:
He has a pelt of fur like a troll. He tears his skin with his teeth in his fits. Others say he has eyes like a wolf. There are plenty of stories. Who knows which is true?
But when Jessa and Thorkil arrive at Thrasirshall after a long and dangerous journey through the snow-bound countryside north of their coastal village, they find that Kari is not a monster, just a lonely young boy, but one with the power to destroy his scheming sorceress mother, so he has been isolated to protect Gudrun's power and position. Kari, like Gudrun, is a Snow Walker, one of the white people of the far north who possess the power, amongst other things, to create fire, enter people's minds (subduing them to their will) and to leave their bodies to walk in spirit form.
Gudrun is ruling the Jarlshold through her husband, controlling the minds of the people so that they will accept Ragnar as the Jarl, instead of Wulfgar, who was the rightful heir. Jessa and Thorkil join Brochael, Kari and a skald named Skapti, in searching out Wulfgar, so that he can become the Jarl instead. But their task will not be easy: Kari's powers are largely untried, and Gudrun appears to be far too aware of what's going on with her enemies, and Jessa begins to suspect that Gudrun is using someone in the group to keep track of them. Who is it, and how has Gudrun gained their compliance ?
The Empty Hand
After the death of the Jarl, Gudrun vanishes, and the new Jarl, Wulfgar, begins his rule. Meanwhile, to Jessa's disappointment, Kari and Brochael go back to Thrasirshall in the north for a few years, so that Kari can learn to master more of his magic abilities. Kari fears becoming like his evil mother, Gudrun, whilst others fear his dark magic. Even Wulfgar, who owes his role as Jarl to Kari, begins to doubt him, especially when Kari is accused of bringing danger to the Jarlshold via a prophecy given by a priest whom Wulfgar trusts.
But then Kari find himself with more than just accusations to survive. A monstrous, bear-like creature is coming to the Jarlshold, with Wulfgar as its target. Will Jessa and the others survive in their hunt for it and will Kari be able to overcome it before it destroys the Jarl ?
The Soul Thieves
This book recounts the final conflict between Gudrun and Kari. They are identical but opposite, and therefore bound to each other with a link that Kari wants broken for all time. Gudrun hates and fears her son, but she cannot leave him alone, despite the fact that she has retreated to her palace in the land of the Snow-Walkers, which lies far to the north, beyond all natural knowledge of those of the Jarlshold. She continues to watch Kari and the people of the Jarlshold, and waits for her chance to persuade Kari to join her.
Loathing Wulfgar, Gudrun has promised him that she will take away from him that which he loves the best. As he prepares to celebrate his marriage to Signi, Gudrun's plan becomes shockingly clear:
Around them the mist closed in. Shapes moved in it; they thought they say huge men, tall as trolls, creatures from nightmares. A fog-wolf with glinting eyes snarled under the table; the legs of distorted, monstrous beings waded past them through the hall. Frost was spreading quickly across the floor; it crunched under their feet and nails; they breathed it in and the pain of it seared their throats, clogged their voices.
'Getting cold,' Hakon's voice whispered, close to her.
'Me too.' She struggled to say, 'Keep awake,' but her lips felt swollen, her tongue would not make the sounds.
Cold stiffened her clenched fingers.
'Hakon ...' she murmured, but he did not answer. She felt for him; his arm lay cold beside her.
Around them the hall was silent.
Now the white grip of the ice was creeping gently over her cheek, spreading on her skin. With a great effort she shifted a little, and the fine film cracked, but it formed again almost instantly, sealing her lips with a mask of glass. She couldn't breathe.
Crystals of ice closed over her eyelids, crusting her lashes.
Darkness froze in her mind.
Whilst the people lie enchanted in the Jarl's great hall, Gudrun steals Signi's soul away and leaves her in a death-like state. There is only one way to get Signi's soul back: Kari will have to go north and confront his mother. He isn't sure if he has the power to overcome since he has not devoted his life to the study of evil sorcery, but unless he can beat her now, he will never be free of her, nor will the people of the Jarlshold.
The journey to the land of the Snow-Walkers is dangerous and terrifying, going beyond all maps but one, an ancient almost unreadable map that Kari takes with him on his journey to the land of the Snow-Walkers. But he does not journey alone; his old friend Jessa, his guardian Broachael, Skapti the poet, and the former thrall Hakon accompany him on his quest. And it is not merely Signi's soul that is at stake. Gudrun's spell has been designed to eventually overcome everyone in the Jarlshold, so that eventually there will be nothing but soulless shells left behind.
Catherine Fisher's writing is descriptive, poetic, and tense. Her descriptions of magical beasts and phantoms are totally spellbinding, and the narrative pace matches the movement of her characters through the snow-bound landscape.