A slightly different version of the following review was first posted in a "Writing Children's Literature" online course I recently took from Western New Mexico University.
Ice by Sarah Beth Durst is a young adult fantasy novel consisting of a modern-day retelling of the fairy tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” There is also a fair amount of “Beauty and the Beast” mixed into the story. Cassie loves her life as the daughter of an Arctic researcher and has no desire to experience everyday “civilization.” Her only complaint is that she misses the mother she believes to be dead. On her fateful 18th birthday, Cassie learns that she has a magical birthright, and that the Polar Bear King has come for her hand in marriage.
Major spoilers follow.
Cassie quickly decides to marry Bear in exchange for his arranging to free her mother from the trolls. Cassie soon comes to love Bear, and learns that he is a munaqsri, or magical creature that shepherds souls during birth and death. Shortly after learning she is pregnant, she unwittingly breaks Bear’s bargain with the trolls by looking upon his human face, and he must leave her to marry the troll princess. Cassie swears that she will rescue Bear and bring him home.
I absolutely loved the first part of this book, when Cassie explores the Arctic, goes to live with Bear, and falls in love with him. I did not enjoy the middle of the book as much, when Cassie treks alone across all sorts of terrains and meets several munaqsri in her quest to find Bear. To me, this part of the book felt a bit like a D&D quest: go here, see this creature, set a new goal and go there, see that creature, and so on. It felt a little bit as though pages needed to be filled up the first section and the conclusion, and also because the pregnancy needed to be at a certain point at a certain time in the plot. To be fair, though, I don’t know how I would have done this differently if I’d written it.
Regardless, I’m happy to say that I found the ending quite satisfying, and I loved that Cassie took action in such a determined way. I felt that this story truly achieved a modern update to a fairy tale (or two). It was somewhat unconventional; in most fairy tales, the “happily ever after” comes before the relationship is consummated, but in this case Cassie marries Bear and becomes pregnant in the first half of the book. It is important to note that there is no hint of rape -- Bear makes perfectly clear that sexual relations are not a condition of the marriage. I found the progression of Cassie and Bear’s relationship refreshing in comparison to the usual wispy, dreamy “happily ever after” trope.
I chose to read this book because I love stories about Arctic environments, polar bears, and survival. (I also admit that I just love that cover!) I’m glad I read it, because the writing is good; I enjoyed the insertion of Cassie’s modern-day sensibilities into the unusual settings; and I especially loved the way Cassie decided to mix human scientific research with munaqsri magic.