As soon as I heard about Sarah Beth Durst's retelling of the East of the Sun, West of the Moon fairy tale, I felt that old familiar tug. I've read Edith Pattou's East and Jessica Day George's Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow and enjoyed parts of both of them very much, though neither captured my imagination the way I really wanted them to. You see, as it is basically a Norse version of Beauty and the Beast, I've always felt I ought to love this fairy tale more than I do. But I've been vaguely but persistently dissatisfied with every retelling I've read. I'm beginning to think this is a problem with the source material, a mismatch between us if you will, and not necessarily with the retellings themselves. As I've talked about before, it's a problematic storyline in many ways and particularly difficult to pull off in novel form, I think. Yet somehow I eagerly anticipate each new attempt, hoping this one will be the one.
Cassie loves ice. She was raised on it and has very little inkling of or interest in the world outside the Arctic research station that has been her home for the past eighteen years. As a little girl raised by her dedicated researcher father, she lived for those nights when her grandmother would tell her the story of her mother. Even though she knew it was only a fairy tale, Cassie never tired of the story of the rebellious daughter of the North Wind who defied her father and escaped an arranged marriage to the Polar Bear King to run away with her father, only to be blown away to the land of the trolls for her transgressions. To a little girl desperate for her mother, this story serves as a precious dream about what life would have been like if it had all gone well. But when she turns eighteen, Cassie's life changes. An ancient and enormous polar bear shows up and talks to her. He tells her her time is up and he is there to collect on his end of the bargain her mother made with the North Wind. He will have Cassie for his bride and carry her off to his ice palace. Being the smart cookie that she is, Cassie makes her own deal. If the bear rescues her mother from the trolls in that land east of the sun and west of the moon, she will marry him. The bear achieves the impossible and off they go.
The first half of this book is extremely strong and utterly enjoyable. I loved that Cassie had such a forceful personality, and I loved even more that Bear was allowed to be a vibrant character. In my past experience with this tale, so much of my problem with it seemed to stem from a lack of development of the bear's character and, therefore, a distinct lack of depth to the relationship between the girl and her intended. This was not a problem at all in the first half of Ice. Cassie is rugged and determined and smart with it. Bear is equally intent on achieving his goal and on his responsibilities as a munaqsri, or guardian of souls. This aspect of the world building was especially strong. I loved how unique it felt and the way Durst drew on Inuit legends and folklore felt very organic and fresh. As a result of these strengths, combined with the fact that she actually gave her leads time to get to know each other, I was immediately drawn to their developing relationship. It is sweet and slow and readable and just an all-around treat. One moment when Bear is in his human form standing behind Cassie as the two of them gaze out at the beauty of sunset over the frozen tundra actually had me catching my breath it was so lovely. At about the halfway mark, the bear is captured and it's up to Cassie to rescue him. This is normally the point where things get awesome in a story and I am 100 percent behind the heroine going in, guns a-blazin', and getting the job done. Unfortunately, everything slowed down just when it should have sped up. Bear is out of the equation and, unfortunately and rather surprisingly, Cassie doesn't hold the whole thing up on her own. She's traveling, traveling, traveling in the ice and snow and some things happen but never to their full potential. By the time she finally reaches the trolls I've lost interest in whether she'll win or not. The momentum and narrative thread are scattered in ten different directions and the final page in which things wrap up can't make up for the loss. Once again I'm filled with a sense of so much potential somehow unfulfilled. I truly loved the first half, but it drifted slowly downhill from there. And yet. I remain hopeful. Maybe the next one will be the one.