1977’s The Ice is Coming is the first volume in Patricia Wrightson’s Wirrun trilogy.
The Ninya, the ice folk who live unnoticed beneath Australia, have a dream: to return to the surface world, freeze it solid, and then be free to roam. Only the Eldest Nargun, a volcanic rock creature that can summon fire, could confound the Ninya. If the Ninya act quickly, by the time their ancient enemy learns what the Ninya are up to, it will be too late.
Unfortunately for the simple ice folk, they boldly discuss their vision unaware that someone is eavesdropping.
The Mimi is another kind of rock creature, light enough to be carried far from her home by a gust of wind. Fate set her down where she could overhear the Ninya scheming. However, by herself there is little the Mimi can do to prevent an ice age from sweeping over all Australia.
Wirrun is one of the People (aka Aboriginal Australians), connected to the land in ways the Happy Folk, the pale-skinned latecomers to Australia, are not. Wirrun uses the money he earns working for Happy Folk to finance forays into the countryside. On one such trip, he is astounded by unseasonal cold. He has survived a close brush with the Ninya.
Newspaper reports of mysterious freezing cold convince Wirrun something is up. He sets out to track down the cause of the ice, a quest that eventually leads him to the hero Ko-in. Ko-in grants Wirrun great Powers. Wirrun is now able to sense rock folk and ally with the Mimi.
All the pair need do is find the Eldest Nargun and set him on the ice folk. That could be hard to do. The ferocious Eldest Nargun is said to have set out to battle the ocean, down by a shore. Australia has a lot of shoreline: finding the Nargun may take too much time to let Wirrun and Mimi save the continent.
Although this book was aimed at a younger audience, there was no indication of that on the Del Rey edition I encountered. Instead, there was an eye-catching Michael Whelan cover, which as you know is something that considerably upped the odds that I would buy a book by an unknown author.
This edition has a piece from the author addressing why she used an Australian setting, which boils down to she came from Australia and did not care to use a more conventional European-derived setting. The myths she used were originally told by Aboriginal Australian groups. Some of these groups are still extant; others have died out. She claims writers leave to use myths for her own purposes.
Opinions re the ethics of re-purposing other folks’ religion and myth in this manner have been changing. I note an ongoing process in Western fantasy by which European-American-Canadian etc. writers move from being unaware that other traditions exist > to being aware that they exist but also being convinced anything not-made-here is inherently bad (see Narnia’s Tash) > to being aware they exist and convinced they would make cool plots possible > the current situation where people are questioning whether the people who originated those traditions should have some sort of say in how they are used.
Wrightson meant well. In 1977, writing about an Aboriginal Australian protagonist was progressive1. She does manage something a lot of authors in her place did not, which is to resist the urge to insert a Mighty Whitey to demonstrate how Australian magic should work, given only a passing Caucasian with a week or two to master the whole of someone else’s culture.
In fact, the Happy Folk — I’d love to know why Wrightson used that particular term for European settlers2—play almost no direct role in this book. Wirrun interacts with them to the extent needed to fund his forays but otherwise they are irrelevant to his daily life. Even though they are aware of the escalating climate change issue, they do not make any effort to stop it. This seems odd. Wouldn’t people aware of the looming onset of rapid climate transformation be motivated to undertake whatever steps were necessary to mitigate it? Presumably Wrightson made this creative choice so as not to steal the spotlight from Wirrun.
Ice won the 1978 Australian Children’s Book of the Year Award. It didn’t win my 17-year-old-me-liked-this award because I expected a book aimed at adults and got one whose plot and prose were more appropriate someone younger.
The Ice is Coming is out of print.
1: An earlier Aboriginal Australian protagonist. Bony, was a half-caste who worked as a police detective and starred in twenty-eight Australian mystery novels. This was also a progressive choice … sorta. My editor, who has read several Bony novels, assures me that he’s endowed with superhuman tracking skills and a mystical connection to the land. Um, racism of the magical negro kind.
2: There is a blink and you’ll miss it reference to a human population in Australia predating and pushed aside by the Aboriginal Australian peoples. Not sure to whom the author was referring.