When Cassie was a little girl, her grandmother told her a fairy tale about her mother, who made a deal with the Polar Bear King and was swept away to the ends of the earth. Now that Cassie is older, she knows the story was a nice way of saying her mother had died. Cassie lives with her father at an Arctic research station, is determined to become a scientist, and has no time for make-believe.
Then, on her eighteenth birthday, Cassie comes face-to-face with a polar bear who speaks to her. He tells her that her mother is alive, imprisoned at the ends of the earth. And he can bring her back -- if Cassie will agree to be his bride.
That is the beginning of Cassie's real-life fairy tale, one that sends her on an unbelievable journey across the brutal Arctic, through the Canadian boreal forest, and on the back of the North Wind to the land east of the sun and west of the moon. Before it is over, the world she knows will be swept away, and everything she holds dear will be taken from her -- until she discovers the true meaning of love and family in the magical realm of Ice.
~Print copy (library), 308 pages
Published: 2009 by Margaret K. McElderry Books
Yes, I know I promised I'd have this book review Wednesday, but I... well, this was a weird book, and not an entirely in my favorite way.
First of all, look at those words in the summary: fairy tale, magical realm. It makes this seems like fantasy-fantasy, the sort I'm used to, where people in the book admit that magic exists, as a force of nature, and that these bizarre happenings are because of this.
This book has more of a supernatural-y feel to it, with the Polar Bear King a "guardian of souls." He knows when a birth or death of a polar bear is happening, and goes out to collect the soul from a dying bear or give a soul to those being born. And he explains that he keeps his magical ice castle up with some theory on "rearranging molecules."
Perhaps it would be best to understand why I picked up this novel, and the fairytale behind it. Here is (somewhat) how the original tale -- the one I happen to love -- goes:
- A girl is born in icy land, in a poor family. (In some versions, this girl was born with no name, because the girl's mother didn't want a girl.)
- She meets a magical animal -- I think a bear, though possibly some other Arctic-icy-style animal -- and he asks her to marriage. In return, her family is helped with food and money and such things. Given the wretchedness of home, the pure-hearted maiden agrees.
- He takes her to his magical castle made of ice. On their wedding night, though, he turns into a human and sleeps beside her. He refuses to let her see his face, though.
- In the morning, he is back to talking animal form, and they spend an indeterminate amount of time laughing, joking, talking, and discussing intellectual stuffs. Maiden falls in love with him.
- HOWEVER... *dun dun dun* She gets curious about what his face looks like, and one night, she takes out a candle and sneaks a peek at his human face while he's sleeping. He wakes up and gets upset.
- It's revealed that he's under a spell from a Troll Queen, and if he married his true love, she couldn't see his face. Woe is me, he cries. The Troll Queen takes him away to be her husband, as part of his curse. (Honestly, I'm a bit fuzzy on this part. It was either a deal or a curse, or something like that.)
- The Troll's castle is east of the sun and west of the moon, so far away that Maiden couldn't possibly get there. But she sneaks to a place where the Four Winds (North, South, East, West) meet, and she receives help from them. (And then there's something about getting help from an underground population of dwarves, or something like that -- or possibly I'm confusing another tale with this one).
- She manages to get to the castle, rescue her husband, and the curse is broken. Yay! He's human again, and a prince to boot! Her family never suffers, she lives happily in love with her prince as the queen, and The End.
Yea, I'm a little fuzzy in some places, but that's the basic original tale. I really love this tale, and there aren't that many novels based off it (or at least not that many available to me). Notice no mention of souls, death-and-birth, and no research stations or poor families living in a wooden shack during the winter.
Cassie, while a decent main character, didn't... click with me. I wanted her to be like Emily Strange (Rob Reger, Emily the Strange quartet), or Jennifer Strange (Jasper Fforde, The Last Dragonslayer), but I kind of felt she had a life at the little research station she lived in. She should've stayed there, instead of proposing the deal for the Polar Bear King to rescue her mother.
Really, I felt like she was a smart, realistic girl who wasn't a daydreamy sort, like I am. And while there are mentions of how she takes research from her station and tries to predict the births of polar bears so her husband isn't so sad after stillbirths (described as Bear not getting there fast enough to give the baby a soul), she buys into this magical-realism thing pretty easily, like a daydreamer (like me) would.
Also, there's a little matter of
The good things, though: it's a good fairytale. I like it. I'm not fond of romance, but this fairytale, like most fairy tales, draw me in. I don't know why. In this book, the romance made me press my lips together in an unidentifiable emotion -- disapproval, perhaps? -- but the hints of the fairytale were enough for me to not set the book down.
Also, the writing is good. None of that too-descriptive junk you see in Tolkien-knockoff fantasies, but enough description balanced with action to really the ice castle. It even includes description of an icy topiary garden out back.
Cassie, while I did like her, wasn't what I expected her to be. Yea, that's a better way of putting it. And while oftentimes I'm happy when a character doesn't meet my expectations, this time I was a little disappointed. Bear, while not really a main focus in this story -- he's more of a conflict-starter, and then as a goal to be reached when the Troll Queen captures him -- was a decent enough character. He seems to exist both to love Cassie and to start conflict with her, and didn't stand out as a flesh-and-blood character, or at least not like Cassie.
Still, overall this book isn't terrible. The fairytale that is this novel's bare bones is lovely, and I'm glad I came across it. But I'm not really fond of the mixing in of reality. I felt Cassie was too... modern, or academic, a girl to be pulled in by such things. The writing is good, and for people that love romance and only a little dash of magic that is explained away, it's certainly recommended. But I put it at about 3.25 stars, rounded down to an "okay."