Author: Sarah Beth Durst
Genre: Fantasy, Retelling, Young Adult
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry (US) / Simon & Schuster Children’s (UK)
Publication Date: October 2009
Hardcover: 320 pages (US)
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the publisher (UK)
Why did I read this book: Sarah Beth Durst’s new novel has been popping up all around the blogosphere, and when I learned it was a retelling of the Norwegian fairy tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” my interest was instantly piqued. It seems to be one of the more popular of the lesser known fable for retellings, but I had yet to read one. So, when we receive a review copy, I was more than eager to dive in.
Summary: (from amazon.com)
When Cassie was a little girl, her grandmother told her a fairy tale about her mother, who made a deal with the Polar Bear King and was swept away to the ends of the earth. Now that Cassie is older, she knows the story was a nice way of saying her mother had died. Cassie lives with her father at an Arctic research station, is determined to become a scientist, and has no time for make-believe.
Then, on her eighteenth birthday, Cassie comes face-to-face with a polar bear who speaks to her. He tells her that her mother is alive, imprisoned at the ends of the earth. And he can bring her back — if Cassie will agree to be his bride.
That is the beginning of Cassie’s own real-life fairy tale, one that sends her on an unbelievable journey across the brutal Arctic, through the Canadian boreal forest, and on the back of the North Wind to the land east of the sun and west of the moon. Before it is over, the world she knows will be swept away, and everything she holds dear will be taken from her — until she discovers the true meaning of love and family in the magical realm of Ice.
Once upon a time, the North Wind said to the Polar Bear King, ‘Steal me a daughter, and when she grows, she will be your bride.’
With this grandmother’s bedside story begins Ice, a modern retelling of the Norwegian fairy tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” On the eve of Cassie’s eighteenth birthday, she has left the Arctic research station that is her home, on the tail of one of the largest polar bears she has ever seen. As a present to herself, she has broken her father’s strict survival and research protocol, in order to tag the bear for research purposes. But just when she has him cornered, the enormous bear seems to walk into an ice wall, disappearing from sight. Dejected and disbelieving, Cass returns home and explains her actions to her father – who, instead of berating her, becomes irrationally scared, telling Cassie that he will have a helicopter come immediately to the station so that she can be taken away to live with her grandmother in the Alaskan city of Fairbanks. Cassie is bewildered – for she learns that the same fairy tale her grandmother told her every night of her childhood is actually her family story.
Cassie’s mother was the stolen daughter of the fairy tale, brought by the Polar Bear King to the North Wind to raise as a daughter, and then who would become the Polar Bear King’s wife. Once she grew into a woman, however, she fell in love with another mortal – Cassie’s father. When the Polar Bear King came to claim his bride, he made another deal with Cassie’s mother as he would not take an unwilling wife. In exchange for protecting Cassie’s mother and her human husband from the angry North Wind, the Polar Bear King would get their daughter – Cassie – as his bride. The North Wind, however, discovered his wayward daughter’s whereabouts. To protect her husband and Cassie, she begged her father to take out his rage on her alone. The North Wind blew Cassie’s mother to the ends of the earth – east of the Sun and west of the Moon, to the court of the spiteful trolls, where she has remained ever since.
And, Cassie learns, as she has turned eighteen, the Polar Bear King has come for her as payment for the bargain made by her parents.
Instead of running away with her grandmother, however, a shellshocked and still-disbelieving Cassie sneaks out of the station and into the snow, calling out for the Polar Bear King to show himself…and he does. Cassie decides to strike a deal of her own with the bear – save her mother from her imprisonment with the trolls, and Cassie will go with the bear and become his bride. It’s a bargain that Cassie has no intention of truly keeping, but when her mother is freed and she gets to know Bear in his magical icy palace, her plans change as she, inexplicably, falls in love. Things are never so simple, however, as Bear has made another bargain of his own – and Cassie must determine to what lengths she will go to in order to save her husband from a terrible fate.
Ice is a romantic fantasy novel, a retelling in the young adult fashion of Shannon Hale and Robin McKinley. Ms. Durst’s version of the familiar fable updates it with a modern twist. In conception and in terms of plot, Ice is an irresistible, fast-paced read. Ms. Durst creates a world that is both familiar and enchantingly alien, weaving a Norwegian fairy tale with Inupiaq (that is, Inuit/Eskimo) myth. The Polar Bear King, which sounds a little cheesy, is in fact a munaqsri – a guardian of spirits. I loved the concept of the munaqsri as keepers of souls, with at least one for each living species. In terms of magical world building, Ice shines. Traversing the north pole, the arctic tundra, rich green forests and the very ends of the earth, this novel also takes on the ambitious task of writing a difficult, non-traditional love story – it’s traditional in the sense that there’s marriage and children involved, but it’s rare that the heroine of a young adult novel is a wife and teen mother. The love story that unfolds between Bear and Cassie is sweet and devoted, especially in the book’s first act.
While the story is fast-paced and engaging (in fact, I finished Ice in a single sitting) and the fantasy element of different munaqsri undeniably compelling, Ice unfortunately feels a little lacking in the execution department. Everything happens so quickly – in the space of a single sentence, weeks have passed and Cassie has dramatically transformed from suspicious to a deep friendship bordering on love. There’s a lack of finesse in the writing – something extra that is missing, setting Ice beneath the caliber novel of, say, Juliet Marillier’s WIldwood Dancing or Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl. There’s enough romance and engaging plot to make this a quick read, but Ms. Durst’s prose lacks the lyrical magic that would have brought Ice to the next level. The same applies to the characters, particularly Cassie and Bear. They are sympathetic and sweet, but lack a level of believability because of how abrupt and episodic the plot is. It boils down to the writerly cliché of showing versus telling. Ms. Durst tells readers that Cassie feels a certain way and that she and Bear fall in love, but she doesn’t show readers the actual process – which is a shame, because part of the magic of romantic books such as this one is feeling those emotions as two different characters connect over time. I also felt a disconnect between the first act of the book and the second. Ice starts off strong and Cassie begins as a capable, intelligent heroine – the first few chapters as Cassie decides to save her mother and her curiosity as she travels to Bear’s ice castle is compelling, spellbinding stuff. But, the focus soon changes as Cassie returns home, then must set out on a quest to save Bear from a terrible fate. The transition from curious, driven and somewhat skeptical young woman to lover, wife and expectant mother is a rocky one, and I couldn’t quite suspend disbelief. I felt as though the novel was working on a word count and was truncated throughout, especially by the dramatic finale.
And yet, despite these drawbacks, Ice is a compulsively readable novel and one that I certainly enjoyed. It felt a little rushed which worked to its detriment in terms of characters and believability, but the story is undeniably well-conceived and compelling. Recommended for those fairy tale enthusiasts looking for a new retelling.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
PART ONE: The Land of the Midnight Sun
Once upon a time, in a land far to the north, there lived a lovely maiden…
Latitude 72° 13′ 30″ N
Longitude 152° 06′ 52″ W
Altitude 3 ft.
Cassie killed the snowmobile engine.
Total silence, her favorite sound. Ice crystals spun in the Arctic air. Sparkling in the predawn light, they looked like diamond dust. Beneath her ice-encrusted face mask, she smiled. She loved this: just her, the ice, and the bear.
“Don’t move,” she whispered at the polar bear.
Cassie felt behind her and unhooked the rifle. Placid as a marble statue, the polar bear did not move. She loaded the tranquilizer dart by feel, her eyes never leaving the bear. White on white in an alcove of ice, he looked like a king on a throne. For an instant, Cassie imagined she could hear Gram’s voice, telling the story of the Polar Bear King… Gram hadn’t told that story since the day she’d left the research station, but Cassie still remembered every word of it. She used to believe it was true.
When she was little, Cassie used to stage practice rescue missions outside of Dad’s Arctic research station. She’d pile old snowmobile parts and broken generators to make the troll’s castle, and then she’d scale the castle walls and tie up the “trolls” (old clothes stuffed with pillows) with climbing ropes. Once, Dad had caught her on the station roof with skis strapped to her feet, ready to ski beyond the ends of the earth to save her mom. He’d taken away Cassie’s skis and had forbidden Gram from telling the story. Not that that had slowed Cassie at all. She’d simply begged Gram to tell the story when Dad was away, and she’d invented a new game involving a canvas sail and an unused sled. Even after she’d understood the truth—that Gram’s story was merely a pretty way to say her mother had died — she’d continued to play the games.
Now I don’t need games, she thought with a grin. She snapped the syringe into place and lifted the gun up to her shoulder. And this bear, she thought, didn’t need any kid’s bedtime story to make him magnificent. He was as perfect as a textbook illustration: cream-colored with healthy musculature and no battle scars. If her estimates were correct, he’d be the largest polar bear on record. And she was the one who had found him.
Cassie cocked the tranquilizer gun, and the polar bear turned his head to look directly at her. She held her breath and didn’t move. Wind whistled, and loose snow swirled between her and the bear. Her heart thudded in her ears so loudly that she was certain he could hear it. This was it—the end of the chase. When she’d begun this chase, the aurora borealis had been dancing in the sky. She’d tracked him in its light for three miles north of the station. Loose sea ice had jostled at the shore, but she’d driven over it and then onto the pack ice. She’d followed him all the way here, to a jumble of ice blocks that looked like a miniature mountain range. She had no idea how he’d stayed so far ahead of her during the chase. Top speed for an adult male bear clocked at thirty miles per hour, and she’d run her snowmobile at sixty. Maybe the tracks hadn’t been as fresh as they’d looked, or maybe she’d discovered some kind of superfast bear. She grinned at the ridiculousness of that idea. Regardless of the explanation, the tracks had led her here to this beautiful, majestic, perfect bear. She’d won.
A moment later, the bear looked away across the frozen sea.
“You’re mine,” she whispered as she sighted down the barrel.
And the polar bear stepped into the ice. In one fluid motion, he rose and moved backward. It looked as if he were stepping into a cloud. His hind legs vanished into whiteness, and then his torso.
She lowered the gun and stared. She couldn’t be seeing this. The ice wall appeared to be absorbing him. Now only his shoulders and head were visible.
Cassie shook herself. He was escaping! Never mind how. Lifting the gun, she squeezed the trigger. The recoil bashed the butt of the gun into her shoulder. Reflexively, she blinked.
And the bear was gone.
You can read the prologue and first two chapters online HERE.
Additional Thoughts: The “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” fairy tale is a popular one for retelling in young adult novels. Other retellings include Edith Pattou’s East and Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George. I have yet to read either version of the retelling, though I do have East on my TBR – I’ve heard that it’s the definitive retelling. Now that I’m more familiar with the fable, and have given Ice a read, perhaps it’s time to dust off East!
Rose has always felt out of place in her family. So when an enormous white bear mysteriously shows up and asks her to come away with him, she readily agrees. The bear takes Rose to a distant castle, where each night she is confronted with a mystery. In solving that mystery, she finds love, discovers her purpose, and realizes her travels have only just begun.
As fresh and original as only the best fantasy can be, East is a novel retelling of the classic tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” told in the tradition of Robin McKinley and Gail Carson Levine.
Verdict: A solid, romantic retelling of a lesser known fairy tale that is impressive in its scope and story. Though a bit rushed and episodic, it’s still definitely worth reading for fans of romantic fantasy and fairy tale retellings. I’m eager to see what else Ms. Durst has to offer in the future!
Rating: 7 – Very Good
Reading Next: Tainted by Julie Kenner