The Falcons of Fire and Ice, by Karen Maitland
The Falcons of Fire and Ice begins in Iceland in 1514 as Johann makes a mistake that is going to have far graver ramifications than he can even imagine. Johann’s wife Elisabet is pregnant and, desperate for money to support his growing family, he agrees to supply a rich foreigner with some white falcon chicks. There is only one pair of these white falcons left and local legend has it that anyone who harms the birds is cursed until they day they die. Johann swore an oath on the life of his unborn child that the falcons would not be harmed but the only way he could successfully remove the chicks from their nest was to kill the parents. Elisabet knows that an oath sworn on the life of an unborn child cannot be broken without a terrible price being paid.
As for the stolen chicks, they are spirited away across the sea to Portugal where royalty will pay a premium for such rare and prized birds. Not that Portugal is any more promising a location than Iceland since, as the action moves on to 1539, the Portuguese Inquisition ushers in an era of torture and murder. An ill-timed joke told within the presence of a greedy neighbour leads to Manuel da Costa being the first to experience the renewed terror of the Inquisition but many more suffer the same fate. Even the Royal Falconer is not immune from the purge and he is imprisoned on false charges. However, the Inquisitors strike a bargain with his daughter Isabela – she has one year to retrieve two white falcons from Iceland or else her father and their whole family will be killed.
Meanwhile, back in Iceland, a menacing stranger has possessed the soul of a woman who is imprisoned in a volcanic cave and is threatening to destroy the community. The woman’s twin sister Eydis hopes to prevent this disaster but she is plagued by vivid dreams that suggest the only hope for the sisters lies with a young girl who travels from afar in search of white feathers.
The Falcons of Fire and Ice is Karen Maitland’s fourth historical novel and has the same combination of meticulously researched historical detail and mysticism to be found in her previous books. The threat of the Inquisition was very real and, while the task that they set her was perhaps unlikely, it is no surprise that Isabela would believe that the perilous journey to Iceland was her only hope of saving herself and her father. There were plenty of people who were also feeling the heat from the Inquisition and a couple of those are roped into helping Isabela. Unfortunately for Isabela, nothing and nobody are what they seem and at least one of her travelling companions has a vested interest in seeing her fail in her mission. One of those that Isabela is forced to rely on is Ricardo, a charming rogue who actually manages to add some humour to what is overall a dark story. Ricardo in fact shares narration duties with Isabela and Eydis and Maitland has done a great job of giving them each a unique voice and approach to the story.
There are several complex storylines involved in The Falcons of Fire and Ice but, while sometimes a little meandering, the book fits together well. There is plenty of historical detail and scene-setting and so the book is maybe a little slow to get going, but this ultimately adds to the richness of the storytelling. Indeed, there is plenty of action, intrigue and spooky goings-on later in the book which helps to speed things along. Each chapter of Falcons begins with a brief paragraph or so providing information about falcons and the mythology that surrounds them. Maitland has used a similar device before and, while much of the information provided is interesting, it doesn’t really add anything to the story itself. It would be interesting perhaps to have had some of the more pertinent information worked into the story rather than having lots of standalone factoids.
While The Falcons of Fire and Ice might not be Maitland’s best book [those new to the author would probably be best beginning with either Company of Liars or The Owl Killers] it is still a very good book. There is a palpable sense of mystery and menace hanging over the story and the resolution to the various threads of the plot, both supernatural and more straightforwardly historical, tie together well. The majority of the characters are sympathetic and believable and their various stories do engage the reader. It’s also worth commenting that whoever designs the covers for Karen Maitland’s books does an excellent job. Like her previous three books, The Falcons of Fire and Ice has a distinctive, appropriate and highly pleasing cover.