Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Review of Ice by Sarah Beth Durst

I love retellings of fairy tales, and this one's a honey. It would have to be frozen honey, though—there's more snow in this book than you'll find anywhere but in a biography of Admiral Peary. Durst has taken the Scandinavian Beauty and the Beast story, "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," and set it in the present day, giving us a girl who lives on an Arctic research station with her gruff father and his assistants.

As a young scientist, Cassie is far from being inclined to believe in magic, though when she was little her grandmother used to tell her a seemingly fanciful story about how her missing mother was the adopted daughter of the North Wind, stolen by trolls after having bargained Cassie away to a magical bear.

Cassie thinks her father doesn't believe in fairy tales, either, but when she meets the Polar Bear King, her father panics. She realizes that her father has lied, and her grandmother's story is true. The bear returns, convincing Cassie to accompany him to his icy palace. There she learns to enjoy his company, eventually falling in love with him. (It helps that he takes the form of a man by night.)

But each will yet betray the other. In time Cassie wins her mother back, but at the price of her love. Now she must journey to the ends of the earth, fighting enemies with snarling faces, with smiling faces, and without any faces at all.

The author keeps the bones of the original tale, but uses them to build a new mythology linked to Inuit-type animal gods who preside over birthing and survival.

The original folktale, "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," is a story about being willing to do anything for the sake of love. Durst's retelling amplifies that feeling, with the stakes raised because her Cassie is going to have a baby.

Durst has a gift for communicating her cold setting to the reader:

By evening, the sun was to her right. Ice crystals sparkled in a halo around the sun and in gold sheets around Cassie. The powdery mist cut visibility even more. She forced herself to concentrate on the ice in front of her. But even with all her concentration, she stumbled over invisible frozen waves. She had no depth perception in the glare of infinite whiteness. Her remaining eyelashes were icicles, framing her view of the world. Her nostril hairs had also frozen. She exhaled through her nose to keep it warmer. Her Gore-Tex pants rustled as she stumbled along. It was the only sound in the emptiness besides the huffing of the bears.
In the Arctic wilderness, Cassie encounters not only the dangers of ice and cold, but also creatures who could easily kill her. This heroine uses her knowledge of survival as well as relying on magical allies and trickster strategies to accomplish her goal of retrieving her shape-shifting mate.

It isn't easy to combine fairy tale elements with modern science, but the author makes it work, leading us smoothly through two overlapping worlds. For example, each chapter begins with latitude, longitude, and altitude. And animals such as the polar bears, while linked to the magic of their king, otherwise behave like ordinary wild creatures.

I was curious to see how the author would handle the trolls, but I should have guessed that her story's resolution would contain an intriguing twist, rounding out the unusual and moving new vision that Durst has created in Ice.

Note for Worried Parents: This is a book for teens. There's some discreetly handled sex in Ice, along with talk about birth control, pregnancy, and birth.


Vonna said...

I can't wait for this one, but I have at least ten more novels to read first. I'm reading with an eye toward meeting authors, editors and agents at two SCBWI conferences in January and February, but ICE will be the first one I read after I finish my list.

Anna Staniszewski said...

I read this a couple weeks ago and really enjoyed it. It's based on one of my favorite fairy tales, so I was excited to read it. It was a little hard to wrap my brain around the story being set in modern times, but once I got past that I was sucked right in and sped along to the end. There were times when I stopped mid-sentence and marveled at the lovely writing; I love books that make me do that!

Kate Coombs said...

Vonna, you've got something to look forward to!

Anna, isn't that a great feeling? I was uncertain about the modern setting, too, but she really pulled it off! And yes, "East of the Sun and West of the Moon" is SUCH a great story. I have a couple of picture book versions on my shelf.