Fire and ice

Just occasionally you can be reading, and find that your book comes unexpectedly alive for you. I was sitting in the courtyard the other day in the building in which I work, reading Karen Maitland's absorbing The falcons of fire and ice, when suddenly I heard a screeching sound, and spotted a falcon attempting to land on the corner of the tower that lies at the heart of the building. Not a bad experience when partway through a book that revolves around falconry and the pursuit of two white falcons as a gift for the King of Portugal.

Karen Maitland has rapidly become one of my favourite authors since reading her eerie historical novels Company of liars and The owl killers. Falcons of fire and ice is a rather different read, Maitland has moved away from medieval England to sixteenth-century Portugal and Iceland. Isabela, the daughter of the King's falconer, lives a privileged assured life at the heart of Portugese society. Her life is to change dramatically when her father is arrested, and Isabela discovers that her family background is completely different to everything she had been brought up to believe. Escaping to Iceland to try and trap a pair of white falcons and assure her father's freedom, Isabela knows that it will be a dangerous journey, what she doesn't know is that the Inquisition are on her trail, and are prepared to go to any lengths, including a reluctant assassin, to prevent her return.

I loved this novel, it is very different to the previous ones, and although there is still a supernatural edge to it, this is not as pronounced as in the two "English" novels. However there is a dark side to Falcons too, as it shows the evil that men do to each other. Isabela, the heroine, is an engaging character, and I loved Ricardo, the would-be villain, who is a comical Don Juan type figure. Maitland blends humour and adventure expertly, and sets them against a world that can be full of cruelty. Her light touch in certain areas actually accentuates this, and turns what is sometimes a light-hearted "adventure" read into something that is much more serious.

I suspect that the title owes a lot to Robert Frost's poem (one of my favourites) Fire and Ice: 
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

This, in a nutshell, is Maitland's novel. A novel that ranges from the fires of the Inquisition to the cold landscape of Iceland, from passion and desire to hate that is as deep and icy as any Icelandic glacier. It's a brilliantly well-written, compelling novel. I loved it and raced through it at top speed. As always with Karen Maitland, it's highly recommended.

For more information on the gyrfalcons, the white falcons of Iceland, see nature photographer, Daniel Bergmann's fascinating blog:


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