Any attempt to categorise The Ice Lands is pretty much doomed. It’s a skilfully written exercise in edgy ambiguity, tantalisingly open to interpretation. It’s not ‘horror’ of the stereotypical rip / rend / spatter style, yet there’s plenty of blood spilled using most unpleasant methods. It draws on the melancholic mystery and the stark hostility of landscape which underpins the very best Nordic noir, but this is no Scandi crime police procedural. It shreds the superficial social niceties of Iceland’s confused, post-crash sensibilities and, like the very best fiction, it amplifies the reader’s inner fears. It’s an erudite exercise in unleashing Nameless Dread, and it’ll leave most people bewildered and a bit baffled.
Me, I quite like being bewildered.
The story, which sees four friends stranded in Iceland’s remote ‘desert’ region, initially reminded me of the opening sequence to ‘An American Werewolf In London,’ with lost travellers stumbling through the misty Yorkshire moors. It has that same kinda vibe, but The Ice Lands takes itself entirely seriously. Sweeping in its depth and breadth, it exposes the shallow realities of what seem to be rock-solid relationships, the betrayal of friends, desperate loneliness, alcoholism and narcotic addiction, incest and exclusion, the pursuit of the self through bizarre sexual practices; the swirling strangeness of a twilight landscape and a deserted village stack full of secrets.
An undercurrent of supernatural surrealism blends with hints of dark deeds that resurface from the past. And then it’s given to extended sections of introspection, where the four protagonists explore their personal histories, tugging on the strands of anxiety which have been woven into their unhappy tapestry of bitter disappointment.
Disjointed and discomforting, The Ice Lands also provides an unparalleled insight into the modern Icelandic ‘soul’. To appreciate it, you may need to enjoy feeling unsettled and just a little bit out of control. If you like David Lynch (especially Twin Peaks), or Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, then this should suit your sensibilities. Its echoes will certainly stay with you for a while.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Ice Lands by Steinar Bragi is available as an ebook or paperback