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Last Rituals
Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Icelandic Novel of Secret Symbols, Medieval Witchcraft and Modern Murder

Last Rituals: Icelandic Novel of Secret Symbols, Medieval Witchcraft and Modern Murder by internationally acclaimed author Yrsa Sigurdardottir and translated into English by Bernard Scudder will thrill readers with the finely written mystery and more intimate look at a glimpse of Iceland as the background, a country that intrigues but often remains mysterious. The author combines an obscure part of history with dark psychological details while also creating a realistic and sometimes humorous backdrop in the characters investigating this unusual case.

Thora Gutmundsdottir, a divorced mother who started her own legal partnership receives a phone call from Germany from the Amelia Guntlieb who had been given her name by one of Thora's former professors. Amelia's son was murdered in Iceland and the family needs assistance. The Guntliebs do not feel the local police investigated their son's case thoroughly. Amelia proposes that Thora work with Matthew Reich, a man who spent 5 years with the Munich CID. Although Matthew has the investigative skills needed, he does not know the Icelandic language well enough to ask questions and mix with the locals well enough to get real answers. Certain shocking details of Harald's murder are just too mysterious, eerie and gruesome to believe the murder is connected to a drug deal gone bad. Does someone have a personal vendetta against Harald? After initial reservations, Thora accepts the case and Matthew hands over a dossier detailing many of the particulars of Harald's life. Do the details of his murder relate to his studies of history or to some dark hidden aspect of his personal life? Are the gruesome details a measure of the killer's rage or a clue to the identity of some mysterious group? What does the strange symbol mean? Harald had gone to Iceland to study Medieval history. In particular, his research compared Icelandic witchcraft with witch burnings, execution and torture in Medieval Germany. Whereas women were often the target of witch burnings in Germany, in Iceland, the majority of witches executed were men. Does this difference have any bearing on Harald's research in Iceland? As the investigation narrows, the two discover Harald began to develop strange practices while in Iceland. An investigation into Harald's personal life in Iceland as well as in Germany unearths more and more secrets. Thora and Matthew's investigation takes them through the history of Iceland in many forms and the author gives the reader a fascinating view of both historical and modern Iceland. The more clues they find, the more mysterious the murder appears and the two are no longer sure whom they can trust.

Yrsa Sigurdardottir creates the perfect balance between realistic characterization and a darker multi-faceted mystery that intrigues the reader as it unfolds. As the details of Thora's family life interfere with her investigation, the reader sees a glimpse of her as whole person --- one who cares for her children as only a devoted mother can but also as a person whose life had endowed her with a delightful sense of humor and a sense of compassion that underlies her investigation. The developing relationship between Thora and Matthew provides delightful humorous twists to accompany the terrifying secrets and relationships they uncover. The mystery itself grabs the reader's attention from the very beginning and heightens with each successive revelation of clues. Suspenseful twists and turns lead to a climax where all the pieces carefully prepared from the very beginning fall together and yet still surprise the reader in unexpected and unforgettable new ways.

Yrsa Sigurdardottir's novel will appeal a wide variety of readers with an interest in Iceland from those with a mere curiosity for this unique country all the way to those with a more thorough knowledge from travel or studies of Icelandic literature. The author interweaves well known aspects of her native land such as the Icelandic horses, lava fields and various landmarks with a humorous look at the pronunciation of the Icelandic language and local driving customs into the plot and interchanges of the characters themselves. Those curious for a closer more in depth look at Iceland will appreciate the author's look at the effects of a small population, the history of Icelandic law and religion and the results of globalization on the daily life of local residents. At all times, the author integrates these details so closely into characters and the structure of the novel so that the pace of the mystery unfolds fluidly with a touch of humor and heightening of the mystery.

Scholars quite familiar with Medieval Norse manuscript history and literature will be thrilled to discover the realism in Yrsa Sigurdardottir's portrayal of the intricacies of Icelandic manuscript history. The author details this history through Thora's investigations of Harald's actions and relationships so readers unfamiliar with this aspect of Icelandic history easily follow the unfolding mystery. The author creates the best of two worlds ---- the reader follows a realistic portrayal of Iceland's unique place in Medieval history and literature without being weighed down by a pedantic academic treatise but her attention to precision makes Last Rituals a more intriguing read than some of the missing codex, manuscript, symbol novels in current vogue. Yrsa Sigurdardottir's careful attention to detail and its seamless integration into the very heart of her writing style make Last Rituals one of the best recent novels in the genre.

Publisher:  William Morrow (October 2007)

Reviewed by Merrimon, Merrimon Book Reviews
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