My cat, Gopher, thinks that books are pillows. He approves of Ice!
My love of fairy tale retellings is well documented here, but Ice gave me something new to ponder. It re-tells a story I'd never heard before, East o' the Sun, West o' the Moon, and I've been trying to figure out if I like retellings of familiar or new stories more.
Not that it really matters when the story is so well written, as Durst's is here (even after going through and reading two versions of the original, my opinion holds).
As a little girl, Cassie's grandmother told her the story of how her mother made a deal with the Polar Bear King that went sour, and condemned her to being swept away to the ends of the Earth. At 18, Cassie recognizes that the story was just a way of explaining her mother's death to a little girl, and is far too focused on her life as a budding scientist with her father in an Arctic research station to think of childhood fairy tales.
Until Cassie learns that some fairy tales are true. There is a Polar Bear King, and part of her mother's bargain including betrothing her unborn daughter to become the king's wife. Cassie makes a deal of her own with the king in order to secure her mother's rescue from the trolls' castle east o' the sun and west o' the moon. In return, Cassie returns with the Bear to his castle of ice near the North Pole.
The Polar Bear King is, of course, not a real bear - he is a munaqsri, a "caretaker of souls." Every species on the planet has its own munaqsri (sometimes several for large populations, like humans, but the polar bears only have the one) who takes the souls from the dead in order to give them to the newborns of the species. Bear wants a wife so he can have children to take his place, but with the intelligence of humans, rather than polar bears. Cassie is appalled - she is only 18! She doesn't want to be a wife yet, let alone a mother - but she remembers her deal to save her mother's life, and consents to the marriage.
But because this is a fairy tale, that bargain she struck with Bear has a price. When Bear is forcefully wrenched from her by the trolls after Cassie violated the rules of the bargain (rules Bear couldn't tell her about, as part of the rules), Cassie finds herself alone and several months pregnant in the middle of the arctic. That is the start of her adventure to save her husband - a journey that takes her not only across the world, but beyond, to the castle east o' the sun and west o' the moon, both helped and hindered by other magical creatures along the way.
I absolutely loved most of this book. By the time I finally got this one from the library I'd forgotten what fairy tale it re-told, and actually was seeing a lot of Beauty and the Beast in Cassie's relationship with Bear. Perhaps that was intentional on Durst's part, because bits like Cassie arranging to visit home aren't in any of the original stories I read. Durst did, however, include excellent allusions to the original stories - one translator's last name is Dasent, which just so happens to be Cassie's last name in the novel. Another great touch is Durst's totally original take on trolls - fantasy lovers need to read this book for the trolls alone, because while I haven't read a lot of fantasy I'm pretty sure you've never seen trolls like these before.
One thing that was simultaneously awesome and uncool was Cassie's pregnancy. First of all, how the pregnancy came about was seriously uncool. But then Cassie goes on this epic journey, contents of her uterus be damned, because she has a quest she must complete in order to save her husband. They're on totally different scales, but as I was reading this in the middle of Olympic fever I couldn't help but think of Kristie Moore, the Canadian curler who was 5 1/2 months pregnant during the game. We have this cultural trope that pregnant women are delicate flowers who should just lay in bed eating bon bons for the duration of their pregnancy (but, y'know, not too many, lest they get fat). Cassie does some stuff that I'm sure isn't recommended for pregnant women, but then again we're also in a fairy tale so we can let it slide. But the other uncool part of Cassie's pregnancy comes from all the other characters who think that Cassie shouldn't be allowed to do anything because her fetus is practically sacred. She is literally imprisoned until she convinces other characters that she agrees with them. It definitely provided some great drama, and Cassie proves them all wrong, but it still freaked me out a little bit. But I guess since it wasn't really the good guys who were hindering her, that was probably the point.
One other weird thing: it seemed to me like Cassie has some misplaced anger issues. She spends a lot of time railing against her father for lying to her about the truth behind her grandmother's stories and for failing to rescue her mother from the trolls, when it's her mother that made the deal that arranged for Cassie to marry a supernatural being when Cassie was merely an infant. Her dad really had nothing to do with it.
Ice is an excellent story, period. It definitely doesn't rely on previous knowledge of East o' the Sun, West o' the Moon to be enjoyed. It's a flat out fantasy adventure story, that turns a few tropes on their heads, with a dash of romance for good measure. Highly recommended.