This is the first time I’m giving up on a review copy. I’m a fairly determined reader. I’ve finished many books that I found to be tedious, badly written, or stupid (sometimes all three). But I can’t finish The Age of Ice, and I’m not going to try again later. Either I ran out of the determination I showed before, or this book is so boring it defeated me.
I was drawn in by the unusual premise – a Russian noble conceived in a palace made of ice finds that he’s immune to cold and has a weirdly long life-span. His story unfolds across Russian civil conflicts in the eighteenth century, a doomed Arctic expedition, and the Napoleonic Wars (which is where I stopped). It traverses Russia, Serbia, Paris and Afghanistan (I didn’t get that far). It’s two centuries long (but I couldn’t endure one).
What I expected was one of my favourite types of novel – the weird and wonderful creature you find at the intersection between literary and genre fiction. The blurb certainly gives that impression, throwing around words like “thrilling”, “stunning”, “original” and “genre-bending”. But as any reader will quickly find out, the blurb is wildly misleading. It places emphasis on the wrong plot points – the ice palace in which a disgraced nobleman and a humpbacked woman conceive Alexander and his twin brother, the boys’ idyllic childhood, and the brothers’ contrasting personalities. The conception and childhood however, are dispensed with in a couple of pages. Alexander and Andrei’s relationship is prominent at first, but Andrei dislikes his brother for rather vague reasons, buggers off out of the plot to live his own life, and then dies early on after a brief reappearance.
My genre-related expectations were also dashed. The fantasy or magical-realist aspects of this story – Alexander’s immunity to cold, his longevity and his inexplicable relationship with ice – just aren’t interesting. The historical aspect – described as “rigorous” in the blurb – is mind-numbingly dreary. The dense detail might be better appreciated by more dedicated fans of historical fiction (the research that went into this must have been rigorous, at least), but I found it suffocating.
Alexander’s fateful romantic relationships were the only things I found intriguing. Besides being immune to cold, his body can freeze others and form enduringly cold, hard ice. His flesh gets colder when he feels worked up or emotional, making sex and any kind of close physical relationship a serious problem for him. But these relationships get far less page time than such riveting content as Alexander slogging through the snow, Alexander taking the temperatures of dead fish, Alexander whining about being Old Man Frost. At one point I was so bogged down that I couldn’t remember the point of the characters’ current journey and didn’t care.
I could spend another month trying to drag my way through the rest of this, but I can’t take it anymore. I’m done.