12.01.2010

Currently Reading: Ice

Involuntarily, she glanced again at the castle with its soaring ice turrets and crystalline ivy. If he was real, then all she knew of the world—all she knew of science and the rules of the universewas false. Half of her wanted to explore every inch of this place. The other half wanted to turn back the clock and redo the day before.

He padded closer to her, and this time she didn't retreat. "You can return to your 'research' station and pretend all is the same as before. But it is not the same, and it will never be the same. You cannot erase what you now know. Your world has changed."


Author: Sarah Beth Durst

Synopsis: Science and Inuit mythology combine in this retelling of the fairy tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Teenage researcher Cassie Dasent marries a polar bear to gain her mother's freedom from the trolls. Cassie eventually falls in love with Bear and accepts him as her husband, but he never lets her see him in human form. When Bear tells her that he has "fixed her chemical imbalance" to allow her to conceive, she feels betrayed, and turns her flashlight on him as he sleeps. The trolls claim him, the magic palace melts, and Cassie is left pregnant and stranded on Arctic ice. Her only hope to save her husband is to find a way to the troll castle, which lies east of the sun and west of the moon.

Notes: I've always found this particular fairy tale—itself a form of the Cupid and Psyche myth—rather moving. I remember first reading it in its Whitebear Whittington incarnation, years upon years ago, when I was too young to be anything but vaguely haunted by the lines:

Three drops of blood I've shed for thee!
Three little babies I've born for thee!
Whitebear Whittington, turn to me...

Sarah Beth Durst puts the logical polar bear spin on the tale of a white bear, and gets inventive from there. The protagonist, having long outgrown her Gram's stories about her mother being the North Wind's daughter, lives for science and data and the thrill of chasing the beautiful, deadly bears across the likewise beautiful and deadly ice. Cassie's devotion to empirical observation is challenged when she sees a great bear walk directly through an ice wall—and before long, she's warm in a frozen castle, wondering how her GPS reads a latitude of 91 degrees, promising to marry the king of the polar bears if only he'll save her mother from the trolls.

Armed with an impressive amount of research into polar bear science and Arctic survival techniques, Durst leads Cassie and her readers through a physical and emotional journey from spite to trust, from disdain to love, and from a will to live to the will to give life. The descriptions show the Arctic as fantastically beautiful and then as something like Dante's lowest circle of hell. The adversary horrified even tree-crazy me into almost understanding Cassie's desire to never see one again.

The tale is well-told enough and meaningful enough that I'm surprised I didn't love it more. The main problem, I think, is that I didn't get along with Cassie. Till the end of the book, when she adjusts her attitude in all of the areas that made me furious with her, her primary good quality is that she's a survivor. "Survivor" isn't a good enough trait to get me past "selfish" and "mouthy" and "doesn't want her baby." But perhaps that's just me. I'm naturally drawn to characters like Harry Potter, Anne Elliott, Ender Wiggin, Lucy Pevensie—the really pure-hearted ones, and sometimes even those other people label "too perfect."

But I can't fault Cassie's character development, and there's a lot to be said for that. Anyway, judging from other things I've read, my somewhat lackadaisical response is unusual. A friend recommended Ice to me. She generally shares my taste in stories, and loved this one.

Recommendation: Read it with a cup of hot chocolate, and be grateful you don't live inside the Arctic circle. Unless, of course, you do.

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