Every so often I read a book with which I fall instantly in love. “Once upon a time, the North Wind said to the Polar Bear King, ‘Steal me a daughter, and when she grows, she will be your bride.” So begins Ice, a novel by Sarah Beth Durst. There is so much I want to know now: who is this girl who will be stolen, and will she have anything to say about being married to a bear?
Ice follows the myth East of the Sun West of the Moon which is a variant of the Psyche myth (and from which Beauty and the Beast is also descended). In the prologue, the grandmother tells her granddaughter the fairy tale whose beginning I quoted above. The North Wind’s daughter falls in love with a man and has a baby. She makes a bargain with the Polar Bear King. He will protect her from the North Wind, and she will give him her daughter for a bride. But the terrible North Wind discovers his truant daughter’s hiding place and blows her away to the castle of the trolls, east of the sun and west of the moon. As the prologue ends, young Cassie asks her grandmother, “And Mommy is still there?”
When next we meet Cassie, she is almost eighteen, an aspiring polar bear researcher at her father’s research station in the Arctic. The Polar Bear King appears in her orderly life, and she makes a deal with him. She will marry him if he brings her mother back from the Troll Castle. The Polar Bear King carries Cassie away, “an aurora streaking across the Arctic.” Durst portrays the conflict between Cassie’s scientific view of the universe and the magical elements which suddenly appear in her life: “There couldn’t be a castle in the Arctic. The whole expanse had been covered by satellite photography. Someone would have seen a castle. It was, she thought, beyond beautiful.”
I devoured the novel in two sittings. I followed Cassie’s progress as she falls in love with Bear and learns to appreciate the magic of life. She is a strong heroine, and I found her determination and ability to reach Bear after he is taken to the Troll Castle a believable if somewhat crazy quest. I loved the beautiful, win-win ending. The novel has lyrical moments, moment of breathtaking nature descriptions, and moments of courage.
Though Ice could be classified as a fairy tale retelling, I do not feel that the novel fits that mold. Durst manages to marry seamlessly the magical fairy tale elements with the raw reality of the Arctic. Perhaps because the novel takes place in a location that is itself mythical it was easier for me to accept the enchantment of the story, or perhaps it is just that I prefer to believe that magic really is everywhere around us. Either way, Ice is one of the most beautiful novels I have read lately.