Eighteen-year-old Cassie is a scientist. Raised in the Arctic, she's found a calling for herself in her father's polar bear research. This is her world, in the ice and snow.
Yet nothing has prepared her for the day she encounters a bear unlike any other - a bear who outruns her snowmobile and disappears into a wall of solid ice. Nothing that is, except for the fairytales her grandmother used to tell her about her lost mother, and the Polar Bear King.
Cassie soon realises that if her grandmother's stories were true, there's a chance she can get her mother back. But to do so, she'll have to make a promise to the Polar Bear King. A promise she's not sure she can keep.
Like everyone else, I grew up on fairytales. The handsome prince, the wicked villain, the happily ever after - I know my favourites inside out. That's why, when I encounter a fairytale retelling, I often most look forward to how the author will interpret or deviate from the standard version. On this occasion, I was able to open Ice without any preconceived ideas or expectations. I don't know the fairytale Sarah Beth Durst's story is based on, East of the Sun, West of the Moon, but I found myself falling in love with its retelling at first sight.
In Ice, Sarah Beth Durst has crafted a beautiful novel that both delights and horrifies. There's delight to be found everywhere - in the incredibly pure love story of Cassie and the Polar Bear King, and in the many whimsical moments. And when I say whimsical, I mean it: a table made of ice that yields delicious feasts on Bear's command, the tree-girl with skin like green leaves and hair like twigs. It's a welcome return to the kind of magical fairytale world we loved as little children, and it's even better than I remembered. At the same time, there's the fact that Bear's breath smells like raw fish even when he takes human form, there's the inconvenience of the human body and there's a lot of pain.
For me, this fusion of reality and magic is part of what makes Ice so incredibly relevant. It's unusual to read a YA novel that combines fantastical elements and an essentially paranormal romance with such mature themes. It's not the idealised version of life or love you find in weaker, less challenging titles. It's real life, and real love. When we first meet Cassie she's a girl, but by the end of the story she is well and truly an adult - and a wife. This is her journey, and in the context of contemporary YA fiction it's off the beaten track. But we all know that's often the best place to be.
Now, I can't review Ice without making a special mention about the breathtaking scenery. Durst paints her world so vividly that I found myself shivering on more than occasion. To put this into context: I read this book lying on the beach in 29 degree sunshine, and I could feel the Arctic cold. Not only that, but as Cassie's journey takes her over land and ocean it's all just as artfully drawn. We're there with her. We feel it.
I'd recommend Ice to anyone who enjoys fairytale retellings in general, but also to anyone who's looking to try the genre for the first time. It's one of the best. If, like me, you're unfamiliar with the original, Ice will make you want to read that too.
Out: now, in the UK and US.
Many thanks to Simon and Schuster UK for sending me a copy of this beautiful book for review.