Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George
When the lass is born, the last of nine children, her mother is so disappointed in having another girl that she refuses to name her, and just refers to her as “the pika”—the girl. It’s hard to be the youngest, and nameless, especially in the frozen Northern lands where trolls haunt the edges of everyone’s fears. But when the lass (given this name by her older brother, Hans Peter) frees a white stag from a patch of thorns, she is given two gifts—a name, and the ability to speak to animals.
The second gift comes especially useful, and it brings the lass a measure of respect in her town. It also brings danger to her door, in the form of a massive isbjorn, a huge polar bear who asks her to come live with him in an ice palace for a year and a day. In exchange, he will give her family wealth and comfort. It is not a hard choice, and the lass goes with the bear.
The ice palace is a mystery to her. There are strange carvings on the walls that seem to tell a terrible story. The servants, inhuman but kind, begin disappearing one by one. And a strange man climbs into her bed alongside of every night, fully clothed, and is gone by morning light.
The lass knows that there is an enchantment at work, and she is too curious to leave it alone, despite the warnings of the servants, the isbjorn, and her brother Hans Peter. And so she begins to seek the truth—and when she learns it, she throws everything that she loves into mortal peril.
It is then that her real quest begins—a quest for the man she loves, wrapped in the guise of an isbjorn, and a quest to put an end at last to the evil that has kept her Northern home frozen in an endless winter.
This is a lovely retelling of the East of the Sun, West of the Moon fairy tale. Jessica Day George has a flair for likeable characters who seek out their own paths (as I noticed in Dragon Slippers
and Dragon Flight
) and she has a very readable narrative. I enjoyed the first three quarters of this book very much—I loved watching the pieces of this very strange fairy tale weave together into a coherent and compelling story.
However, the last quarter of the book fell apart for me. My favorite thing about retold fairy tales is when the retelling makes sense of an otherwise nonsensical fairy tale. Like in A Curse Dark as Gold
, where we finally understand what could have possessed the miller’s daughter to promise a child, and what Rumplestiltskin’s motives were all along.
This book does that beautifully—until the last quarter of the book, where it stops spinning a new tale out of an old one and falls back on simply retelling the old-school fairy tale. There’s no explanation or interpretation—it’s straight-up fairy tale.
I also took issue with the lass’s relationship with the isbjorn. One of the lovely things about the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, and all iterations of it (like this one) is that it’s one of the rare fairy tales where the hero and heroine actually have a chance to get to know each other on the road to True Love.
There were so many chances for that here—the lass lives in the ice palace with the isbjorn for a long time, and I have to assume that George intended for us to infer that she got to know him and fell in love with him during that time.
But we don’t see it. We see the lass trying to solve the curse, and we see her being clever (though, sometimes her cleverness looks like clever stupidity when she investigates something that everyone, everyone begs her to just leave alone) and we see her getting to know and care for the servants. And we see her growing less afraid of the isbjorn. But we never see her getting to know the isbjorn. We never see that relationship blossoming, and therefore her rush of “He is my true love and I must rescue him” feels false.
It’s not a bad retelling of a fairy tale, but it lacks that certain something—that twist, that “ah-ha!” feeling that lives in the fairy tale retellings I love best. It’s got lovely writing and an engaging protagonist, and I would have loved it as a kid. But it’s not at the top of my list of favorites.