Fairy tales continue to entertain me, especially when they appear in new clothing, alternate settings, or different time periods. Jessica Day George’s book is a pretty straight-forward retelling of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon”, one of the most beautiful fairy tales I know. Because it doesn’t take any leaps of faith, this wasn’t an overwhelming book. But in its quiet, thoughtful way, I would call it a successful retelling.
Published by: Bloomsbury, 2009
Paperback: 330 pages
My rating: 6,5/10
First sentence: Long ago and far away in the land of ice and snow, there came a time when it seemed that winter would never end.
Blessed – or cursed – with an ability to understand animals, the Lass (as she’s known to her family) has always been an oddball. And when an “isbjorn” (polar bear) seeks her out, and promises that her family will become rich if only the Lass will accompany him to his castle, she doesn’t hesitate. But the bear is not what he seems, nor is his castle, which is made of ice and inhabited by a silent staff of servants. Only a grueling journey on the backs of the four winds will reveal the truth: the bear is really a prince who’s been enchanted by a troll queen, and the Lass must come up with a way to free him before he’s forced to marry a troll princess.
The thing I have learned about fairy tale retellings is that (1) setup is really important and (2) authors who try to stick too much to the original usually end up cramping their own abilities. I had never read anything by Jessica Day George before but immediately loved the way she set up the story and new I was in for something good.
The lass – not even loved enough by her mother to be given a name – is a good-hearted, kind girl who is easy to like and easy to identify with. The setup of this novel deals more with her relationship to her brother (I should say one of her brothers) who has returned from his travels a broken man. Not only was I surprised at how tender the depiction of Hans Peter’s sadness was but I was equally impressed how the author showed, rather than told her readers, how the Lass and Hans Peter manage to lift each other up, to be one another’s anchor. It was a quiet beginning but at the same time so lovely. It lets you build a connection to the protagonists that gives the rest of the novel more impact.
Another part of the setup that I liked and that is vital to the rest of the tale is the hunt for a mysterious white reindeer. The Lass, again, shows her kindness towards all living creatures when she saves the animal from being killed. From that moment on, it is only a matter of pages until the isbjørn shows up on the family’s doorstep to whisk the Lass away to his castle. Unlike the rest of her family, she can communicate with him and while he doesn’t divulge much, at least they can talk to each other in the “Beauty and the Beast” segment that follows.
I admit this was not the most riveting part for me. Once arrived in the castle made of ice, the Lass tries to solve its mystery. She is a clever girl and immediately suspects a curse or some other kind of magic that can be broken. Servants who are selkies, satyrs, and other mythical creatures, and that young man who comes to her room every night to sleep in her bed – magic simply must be involved. I couldn’t help but be remindind of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” where the furniture and cutlery talk to the heroine. On the other hand, an entire castle with only a polar bear and a girl could be very, very boring. So I went with it and enjoyed learning about the servants and their backstories.
I am still looking for a more adult retelling that actually takes the “man comes to girl’s bed every night” for the way it was probably meant. I mean, maybe I have a dirty mind, but when I first read that fairy tale, I assumed the two would end up having sex and that the wording is just a euphemism… if you know of a retelling for adults that takes this into account, let me know. This, however, is a children’s book and as such remains clean and sweet and you can read it to your kids without worrying. The young man really does just that: sleep in the same bed with the lass.
The last part of the story is generally my favorite because the girl gets to save the prince who has been taken captive by an evil troll princess. With the help of the four winds, she goes on a long and difficult journey to make right what she has set in motion. Her meddling, her trying to solve the castle’s mystery, her curiosity, is what got the prince into this mess, after all. Again, you just have to love a heroine who takes responsibility for her actions and tries to fix her mistakes. Place a cute animal companion at her side and what would otherwise be a solitary journey that could bore children easily, you get dialogue and banter and friendship. It’s such an easy solution but it makes a world of difference. Anybody who’s been alone for even a short period of time will know that having another creature with you (even if it’s a dog who doesn’t speak with you) helps make a difficult task easier.
Considering how little this retelling deviates from the fairy tale, I’m surprised I had much to say about it at all. I will always lean more on the side of dark, adult, grim fairy tale retellings like Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels or Cat Valente’s Deathless but there is little I can find wrong with one for children if it is done well. And seeing as this is a fairy tale, I won’t even fault the author for the way the puzzle pieces fall into place a little too neatly in the end. Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow was good enough to put Jessica Day George’s other retellings (the ones with girls in pretty dresses on the covers) on my TBR pile.
MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Very good
P.S.: In case you’re wondering why I’m writing review after review when it is usually so quiet around the blog – it’s because I need to distract myself from Terry Pratchett’s passing. I hadn’t thought I could cry so much about a man’s death whom I never personally met. But there it is. I’ve been crying since yesterday and every time I look at my twitter feed, all the feelings bubble up again. I don’t know if I can pick up a Discworld book anytime soon without bursting into tears right away but I will try, just to savor the wonderful words this amazing man has left us.