Article, Author Interviews, Book Resources

The Cry of the Icemark, the Debut Novel of Stuart Hill

Book Focus: April 2005

  • Grades: 6–8

The Cry of the Icemark
By Stuart Hill

0-439-68626-1, $19.95, The Chicken House, Ages 12 and up

This grand epic adventure — written by an obscure bookseller in Leicester, England, who started as a high school drop-out and car upholsterer, and wrote the book in longhand during snatched coffee breaks at the bookstore — is clearly a work of passion. It has created tremendous excitement in the UK and has become a major bestseller and media phenomenon there. It is being compared to master works by authors such as Philip Pullman, Susan Cooper, Tamora Pierce, and even Tolkein.

Barry Cunningham, Publisher and Managing Director of The Chicken House, talked with Stuart Hill about the influences and inspiration behind his debut novel, The Cry of the Icemark.

I want to ask you something about the larger themes. It seems to be here we are talking about the real world, however fantastical the setting. The peasants have it tough whoever is in power, general or queen. But at least Thirrin puts her duty to them first, and is willing to reach out and make friends. To learn. To accept the possibilities of witches' power, the lords of the forest, magnificent talking leopards. Is this part of the message of the book?
Yes, possibilities versus certainties. It's always seemed to me that science seems to have rejected everything that can't be measured, weighed, or grown in a Petri dish. And this story is about accepting the possibilities of that which cannot be measured. Magic and myth.

And children really believe in that too, don't they? They really truly believe in the intangible?
Yes, and that's what I'm trying to recapture here. This idea that simply because something can't be found on the Internet or read in an encyclopedia doesn't mean that it doesn't exist.

But Thirrin's never confident, is she? She can never rely on all that.
No, she can't. She's facing a hugely technological power. They have cannon and musketry. They have technology. And she's facing them with basically medieval weaponry and what the empire itself considers to be creatures of superstition.

And General Scippio Bellorum and his terrifying armies have no time for that.
Not at all. In fact, if they defeat the alliance one their first tasks would be to eradicate the world of these unscientific and irrational beasts.

Above all for me, in The Cry of the Icemark, the battle scenes are among the most gripping and terrifying that I've ever read. Wow, Stuart. Where did all that come from? It's almost like this is real mythology, real history we're reading.
Even as a kid I was fascinated by history. Basically it's distilled from years of reading history and adventure stories. Things like King Solomon's Mines, the works of Rosemary Sutcliffe. I also had an English teacher who wrote historical novels and hers were basically about the War of the Roses. She was a massive influence — for the battle scenes and the medieval world, the world they (Thirrin and her Kingdom) live in.

You know, behind almost every writer I've met there's a teacher or a librarian who's made a transforming influence on their imaginative life.
Yes, that's certainly the case. And dear Miss York was a writer and an actress as well as a teacher and she used to put complete character into everything she was reading to us.

This feeling of real places and of Roman influences, Greek influences, you always feel that this has really happened, or could happen still.
It's an attempt to put across the idea that this is a parallel world rather than a completely different world. So the Polypontus Empire is a reflection of the Roman Empire, as you can hear in their names. The Polyponti rely heavily on Greek mythology and the people of the Icemark are really based upon Norse history and Norse mythology. So it's all sort of parceled up together.

But amazingly we are not dealing with a man here steeped in the classical education are we? Quite a lot of your early career was working in a very different capacity, in the car trade.
Yes, I was basically a car upholsterer. Worked in quite a few little places. One of which was particularly unpleasant. No running water and there were three people working there and about forty mice.

An unusual background for a writer but obviously inspirational for those rather terrifying moments in the book. And I suppose that's something we are very conscious of, the absolute horror of war; you pull no punches in these battle scenes.
No, if you are going to write fantasy, and a lot of fantasy revolves around war, there seems little point in trying to launder it, trying to make it cleaner or more acceptable. Even though it is fiction and it is fantasy, people die. If you are hit with an axe you are going to die in a horrible way. And that affects Thirrin and other characters, especially the battle characters within the story.

And is that an important lesson for children?
I think so. There isn't glamour is the final analysis. People die.

And yet Thirrin and her companions are entranced by war. Entranced almost by the beauty of it. But she feels both things really. When she sees the real dead around her and that first enemy soldier. It really brings it home to her, doesn't it?
Yes, but Thirrin and all of the other characters are products of their environment. The warrior was the elite of their society and she's been trained to be a warrior. Even so, with her first killing, and death, it's brought home to her that some mother's son is dying; some father's daughter is dying. These are people.

There's certainly an equality of death for boys and girls in this terrifying world of conflict when it is total war.
I thought it was important post Buffy the Vampire Slayer that this would be a society where warriors were made up of both male and female.

Of course, without giving too much away, we carry on with our great cast of characters and like all of the most wonderful stories, we really want to know what happens next. Is there another book with Thirrin and Oscar and those wonderful snow leopards?
Yes, there is, of course. The next generation. Thirrin and Oscar grow up, get married, and have children of their own. They will both continue within the story, but so too will their children. The war will continue.

So bad blood continues. Well I can't wait to read it. And we are looking forward to publishing The Cry the Icemark in the spring (2005). And I am so looking forward to reading the next one. Thank you very much for talking with us.

  • Subjects:
    Literature, Literature Appreciation