Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ice - Sarah Beth Durst

Title: Ice
Author: Sarah Beth Durst
Publisher: McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster), 2009 (Hardcover)
Length: 308 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: December 26, 2009
Finished: December 27, 2009

From the author's website:
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.

I picked up this book as an after-Christmas present to myself while my husband and I were vacationing in our family's cottage in northern Ontario. As soon as I heard it was a modern retelling of the fairy tale "East of the Sun, West of the Moon", I knew I had to pick this up (I'm a sucker for fairy tales and retellings). The author makes the modern fairy tale believable: Cassie lives with her father in an arctic research station in Alaska where they study the local polar bear population. Cassie's mother is out of the picture, and her grandmother explained her absence with a fairy tale. The North Wind asked the Polar Bear King to bring him a daughter and in return that daughter would eventually be the Polar Bear King's wife. The daughter fell in love with a man and begged the Polar Bear King to take her to him. The Polar Bear King would not have an unwilling wife, and so the young woman offered the Polar Bear King her future child to be his wife. The North Wind was angry at his daughter for leaving him and in his anger swept her to the ends of the earth. Little does Cassie realize that the fairy tale her grandmother told her is true. On her 18th birthday, a massive polar bear appears to Cassie and comes to claim her as his wife. Cassie agrees, but only if the bear promises to free her mother from the troll's castle she has been imprisoned in for 18 years.

So amidst being angry at her father for not telling her the truth and not saving her mother, and angry at her mother for using her as a bargaining chip before she was ever born, Cassie goes to live with the Polar Bear King (called Bear), and learns of his realm and his magic. The way the world is explained uses a lot of Inuit myths and legends. Bear is actually a munaqsri (moon-awk-sree), a caretaker of souls that transfers them from the dying to the newly born. Munaqsri can alter matter and take the shape of the species they care for, so since Bear is the polar bear munaqsri, he takes the form of a polar bear (but can also take a human form). Part of the agreement for rescuing Cassie's mother from the troll's castle is that Bear was not allowed to let Cassie see his human face or tell her the reason why she couldn't. When Cassie betrays his trust and glimpses his human face, Bear is forced to leave his realm and marry the troll princess. Cassie must travel east of the sun and west of the moon to bring Bear back.

Okay, now for the good things: I loved how the author created the world and the concept of munaqsri, it made the magical concept spiritual. It echoed what my grandmother used to tell me as a child: if no one died, then there'd be no souls to pass on to newborn babies, that we need death for life to go on. The same happens in the book, if there is no soul to pass on to a baby as it's being born, the child will be stillborn. The author brings in munaqsri of other species in the second half of the book as Cassie makes her journey to rescue Bear and it's interesting to see how they all work together.

Cassie is a great character in the beginning. She sacrifices her life as she knows it for the chance that her mother will be returned to her, risking everything on the chance that her grandmother's fairy tale is real. She knows what she wants and does what she can to get it. Bear is a likable character, very sweet and charming in a sincere way. I wish we had seen more development of Cassie's parents, especially her mother, but then again the story's not really focused on them.

What I wasn't nuts about: the plot is wonderful in the first half and suffers a bit I think in the second part. So much happens so fast in the few pages bridging the first and second parts that it's almost as if you're reading another novel altogether. Cassie's personality is different too, and I think there wasn't enough development to show that change. Cassie and Bear showcase a really sweet romance, but I didn't see enough evidence of that affection, the author simply tells us in a few sentences that Cassie's feelings have changed and she cares for Bear now. All in all, the story feels a little rushed from the second half onward after so much detail and care taken in the first half. In spite of these things, I really enjoyed Ice, the tale is set up in a way to be believable and the world created is just fantastic.

If you're looking for a good modern fairy tale retelling that doubles as a supernatural romance, read this!

Thoughts on the cover:
I like my covers shiny. This one is no exception, the font for the title is shiny as well as image itself (it works well with the arctic setting and the ice and snow imagery). The colours are well-chosen: purple, white, and several shades of blue. The image of Cassie is actually how I thought she would look, I love how you can clearly see her red hair and green eyes.

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