Bear and Psyche, Sort Of

As you might know, one of my reading challenges for the year is to read novels that are fairy tales retold–because I really need to read more than I already do!  🙂  But, that goal is what led me to Ice by Sarah Beth Durst.

Cassie lives in the Arctic, at a research station with her scientist father.  Her mother, she believes, died when she was young.  Her grandmother, however, tells a fairy tale about Cassie’s mother–she was the daughter of the North Wind, and was promised to marry the Polar Bear King.  But she fell in love with a human, Cassie’s father, and bartered with the King–he could marry her daughter instead.  And when the North Wind found out that his daughter married a human, in his fury he blew her away to the castle of the trolls.

Such is the swiftly-established backstory, which probably could have been a novel (or at least Part One of a novel) in its own right.  But Ice really starts when Cassie is eighteen, and past believing in fairy tales–until the Polar Bear King actually shows up and wants to marry her.

As you might guess, the Polar Bear King is in fact a magical polar bear.  He asks her to call him Bear, and can conveniently change shape to a human on occasion–although there are complications.  Durst created a very interesting magical framework for her tale, which I enjoyed.  The unfolding romance was sweet as well, and when some of those complications separate Cassie and Bear, Cassie’s quest to find him is an exciting one.  It’s also implausible in certain ways I don’t want to get into to avoid spoilers, but if you suspend disbelief, it’s a good read.

Ice has a very strong fairy tale feel, complete with the fairy tale backstory and a castle of the trolls located “east of the sun and west of the moon.”  But it wasn’t actually immediately apparent which fairy tale this was.  A video interview with the author describes it as “Beauty and the Beast,” and from the initial premise I went into it expecting that.  Maybe I shouldn’t argue with the author, but I have to say, the farther I read the more I think it’s actually “Cupid and Psyche.”  Granted, Cupid is not usually a polar bear, but that complication involving Bear’s human shape was that Cassie couldn’t see what he looked like–which is straight out of “Cupid and Psyche.”  It also wouldn’t shock me to find out there’s a minor tale somewhere in Grimm’s that this follows even more closely.  It just has that archetypal fairy tale feel to it, and I imagine some of the elements have come up in a lot of different places.

I did have a few reservations about the book.  One of the biggest involves Cassie’s mother.  It’s not giving too much away to reveal that she does come back from the castle of the trolls–it happens fairly early on in the book.  Not knowing her mother was a huge motivation for Cassie at the beginning of the book, but then when her mother actually comes back, I didn’t feel like that was adequately developed.  It’s fair enough to say that meeting your mother for the first time at eighteen does not necessarily lead to immediate closeness, but I didn’t feel like Durst properly explored any relationship between the two of them, even if it was going to be an awkward or strained relationship.

Second, I had some trouble with the points where magic and reality met.  I believed in the research station.  I believed (in a fantasy book way, I mean) in Bear’s castle and in his magic.  But sometimes the two intersected, and I had a lot more trouble believing in a scene where a scientist doing research in the Arctic says, “yes, my wife was held captive by the trolls for many years.”  I don’t think it was just magic and the modern day intersecting–I’ve read urban fantasy that I really enjoyed.  I think it was that characters who showed no sign of believing in magic suddenly started talking about it as an accepted fact, and that was a little hard to buy.

However–it was still a good book.  And when I was getting down to the last few chapters, I even stayed up late to finish reading and see how it would turn out.

Author’s site: (check out the best ever FAQ section!)

4 thoughts on “Bear and Psyche, Sort Of

  1. Diane

    It must be good if you stayed up late to read it and find out how it came out! That’s the sign of a page-turner, whatever its flaws in the small details.

  2. I find that there’s a good deal of overlap between East of the Sun… and Beauty and the Beast or Cupid and Psyche anyway – and that’s my favourite fairy tale “family”, so I’m quite curious to read this.

    1. I don’t think I was familiar with “East of the Sun”…but thanks to the internet I just looked it up. I think Ice is even closer to this one than to “Cupid and Psyche,” right down to the White Bear, the trolls and the character of the North Wind. Fascinating! Durst comes up with some clever twists on it, but I’m definitely seeing the inspiration.

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