Catherine Fisher is one of the children’s authors I most regret not having kept up with since I retired. Her works always explore the darker side of human nature in worlds that, while differing from our own in many ways, are nevertheless recognisably similar to the one that we inhabit. I’ve just been sent a review copy of one of her most recent books (I’m not quite sure why it’s being made available for review at the moment, given that it was first published in 2018, but nevertheless!) and I thought that before I read that I would reacquaint myself with the earliest of her works that I remember reading, the three books which make up The Snow-Walker Trilogy.
Set in a world of snow and ice that, with its sea coast and fjords, inevitably brings to mind Norway, the trilogy opens with The Snow-Walker’s Son and introduces the main character, from whose point of view most of the action in all three books is seen, the young girl, Jessa Horolfsdaughter. Jessa and her cousin, Thorkil, both of them orphans and the last in their family’s line, are banished from the court, ostensibly by the Jarl, but in reality as the result of the antipathy towards them of his wife, the witch, Gudrun. They are sent to the far north, to Thrasirshall, following in the footsteps of Kari, the son of the Jarl and Gudrun, a child reputed to be a monster, who lives there accompanied only by his guardian, Brochael Gunnarsson. In fact, Kari, is no monster at all, facially he and his mother appear to be identical. However, the runes have said that Godrun’s own reflection will destroy her, so, as well as avoiding all mirrors, the witch has dispatched her son to a place from which she thinks he can never return, the land where the White People, the Snow-Walkers live.
Jessa and Thorkil both belong to the family of the Wulfings, the true rulers of the land, and this appears to be the reason behind their banishment. However, there is one other who has an even better claim to the title of Jarl, Wulfgar, and along the way they meet up both with him and with a man who appears to be a peddler, but who turns out to be Wulfgar’s skald or bard, Skapti Arnsson. With their arrival on the scene, the main characters involved in the trilogy are almost all gathered together.
After a series of adventures the first novel ends with Gudrun’s defeat and Wulfgar coming into his own with Kari by his side. However, Gudrun’s final act is to curse Kari with the knowledge that no one will want him or trust him because they will always see her in his face and at the beginning of the second book, The Empty Hand, we see that this is indeed the case. Now a monster truly does haunt the land, a monster built by the exiled Gudrun out of runes, a magical being that is driven by hunger and which grows more substantial and more dangerous with every kill as it inexorably makes its way towards Wulfgar’s hall and its inevitable final prey. Only Kari has the wherewithal to defeat this monster and even he cannot accomplish this without the help of Jessa, Wulfgar, Skapti, the faithful Brochael and newcomer, Hakon, the Empty Hand of the title. Hakon, having been cursed by Gudrun and consequently losing the use of his right hand, is thrall to a nasty piece of work, Skuli Skulisson, who is in league with the villain of the piece, Vidar, Wulfgar’s councillor. Vidar tries his best to turn the Jarl and those around him against Kari and when he fails, takes desperate action. Subsequently, despite the worst that his mother and her followers can throw at him, Kari manages to defeat the monster, at which point Gudrun realises that she is going to have to take even more decisive action and live up to her other name, The Soul Thief.
The Soul Thieves, the third book in the trilogy, brings the conflict between Kari and his mother to a climax after Gudrun steals the soul of Signi, Wulfgar’s bride-to-be and sets in motion a curse that will eventually engulf all those who live under Wulfgar’s protection. Jessa, Kari, Skapti, Brochael and Hakon set off for the farthest north, the land of the Snow-Walkers, where they will either defeat the witch and free those caught in the enchantment or perish themselves, knowing that they are playing directly into Gudrun’s hands by bringing Kari to her.
I really enjoyed going back to these books, which I would suggest you give to any nine, ten or eleven year-old readers that you know. They recall many aspects of Norse legends, for example Odin’s ravens, Thought and Memory, they have forceful things to say about the importance of loyalty and friendship and perhaps most interestingly they have that which is still very rare in fantasy novels, an impressive young woman who is the strongest and focal character.