Ice by Sarah Beth Durst

(7.0/10)

The Norwegian “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” is one of my favourite folktales, so I dove eagerly into yet another modern retelling, Ice by Sarah Beth Durst. For those unfamiliar with the story, think Scandinavian Beauty and the Beast with the beast as a polar bear, the heroine first betraying a promise to her husband and then searching for her him the way Psyche searched for Eros, trolls and a rival bride in the mix. Sarah Beth Durst sets her book in present-day North America rather than Norway, and draws on Inuit folklore to make her Bear one of the spirit guardians of a given species (in his case, polar bears).

Things I loved about Ice:

The mix of Scandinavian and Inuit folklore is unique and gels surprisingly well. Being a fan of traditional stories, I actually wasn't keen on a modern twist, but Sarah Beth Durst makes it work by giving heroine Cassie a modern sense of humour. Her dry sarcasm lightens the tone on many occasions and sometimes even made me laugh out loud when I imagined myself reacting the same way in Cassie's predicament. Themes of growing love, trust, betrayal, family loyalty, disappointment in parents' shortcomings, and the shouldering of responsibility knit the book together. The environmental message about dying species was very relevant to our time. It was interesting to see Cassie grow from reluctantly pregnant young woman to devoted mother. Durst's retelling does the best job of developing the romance between heroine and bear/man, which is skimmed over in other retellings I've encountered. Her take on trolls was also unique and intriguing.

Things that didn't work:

The constant GPS headings serve no purpose, especially for those of us who can't tell where we are just by reading latitudes and longitudes. Part Two, the journey, drags on and on. I realize the heroine's search for her missing prince is an integral part of the story, but I don't know why every author stretches it out to over half the book. In the original folktale the journey is episodic and magical rather than tedious and really doesn't take that long. (In fact, it makes more sense to have a quick journey, or why else did the troll princess wait so long to marry the man?) Cassie hikes around forever doing very reckless things and getting seriously injured despite her supposed training in wilderness survival. The supernatural Father Forest was an interesting character the first time he popped up, but we didn't need him imprisoning Cassie for five chapters except as a contrived plot device so that her pregnancy had time to advance.

Unresolved questions and things that don't sit right with me:

We never see a resolution between Cassie and her family, including her long-lost mother. Why were all the winds present except the West Wind? Why did the North Wind want a human daughter in the first place? This was never explained or even hinted at. Finally, in the original folktale the prince is transformed into a bear by the troll queen, who wants him to marry her daughter. By making her Bear a 'munaqsri' (spirit guardian), Sarah Beth Durst makes him a supernatural being able to change shape at will, thereby eliminating the mandatory enchantment. In the first half, Cassie can see Bear only in bear form. This is in keeping with the original story. But as it turns out, he stays in bear shape for most of the book, and we get no indication that he will change into a man for Cassie any more often than is necessary for their marital bliss. Cuddly and cute? Yes. Romantic? No. Would any modern woman want a husband who was a bear 90% of the time and man only at night? I know I wouldn't. It's not quite bestiality, but it comes a lot closer to it than the original folktale in which it's understood that the prince has been and will be a man.

Ice is an interesting and unique entry in the canon of retold fairy tales for young adults. It is certainly worth a read, but there are better retellings of this story. If you liked this book or like the folktale it’s based on, Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George is more authentic, and Edith Pattou’s East is the best rendition so far.

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