Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a sucker for Beauty and the Beast tales. So imagine my joy when I found another fairy tale of a beauty learning to love a beast: East of the Sun, West of the Moon. This other tale as old as time has been adapted numerous times in book and movie form, one of which is a perennial favorite of mine: Ice, by Sarah Beth Durst. And since I’m still on a kick of reviewing Christmas and winter books, why not explain why this one came back for a re-reading this season.
Cassie Dasent lives with her father at his Arctic research station, training to be an explorer of pack ice and a tracker of polar bears. Her mother vanished when she was a baby—taken by trolls, after she refused the proposal of the Polar Bear King, according to Cassie’s Gram’s bedtime story. Now, at eighteen, Cassie is told she must honor her mother’s bargain with the Polar Bear King: since her mother would not be his bride, Cassie must now fill that role. But just as Cassie and Bear begin to form a true, loving bond, Cassie makes a fatal mistake that transports Bear to the troll castle at the ends of the earth. Now in danger without Bear’s magic, Cassie must make a harrowing journey east of the sun and west of the moon to save her love.
This is a story of an ordinary girl befriending a man trapped in an animal form, but because this is a modern take, there are no simpering damsels to be found. Cassie is more than a consolation prize in an old bargain: she uses her knowledge of polar bears and Arctic navigation to assist the Polar Bear King—simply named Bear here—with his job. You see, Bear not only a king, but a munaqsri, or a magical being tasked with transporting souls from being to being. They are partners, not just beast and beauty. And Cassie, although clearly in love with Bear, remains sarcastic and sharp-tongued. Plus, it is funny watching logical and scientific Cassie wrestle with the reality of magic and souls.
I’m somehow drawn to stories that take place in a cold, icy setting, like the Arctic tundra of this book. Which is perhaps because, to me, winter represents everything dangerous, but altogether beautiful. For instance, Cassie reflects on the glistening ice and ocean many times, but both those things nearly kill her on her quest to rescue Bear. She lives with Bear in a glorious ice castle, but once Bear is taken, the true danger and treachery of all that cold and ice reaches her. Cassie’s honest vulnerability is part of what draws you into her adventure, because sometimes, even for all Cassie’s training, not everything works out for her.
Cassie is obviously a very good protagonist, but the biggest flaw in this book is how much the reader feels her love for Bear. Don’t get me wrong, Bear is a good character: he is sweet, kind of sarcastic, and very noble—everything you would expect a fairy tale king to be. But because the book has to get to Cassie’s adventure, establishing their relationship almost feels rushed. I do believe in their friendship, and their love, but it’s not going to top anyone’s most-heart-pounding-romances-in-literature lists. I think the only reason this isn’t too big a problem overall is because Cassie does not spend all her time simpering after Bear; she misses him, and cannot wait to see him, but she knows it’s more productive to plan the next step, rather than wax romantic about him.
While being at Bear’s castle is nice, the real fun of this book is the quest. Cassie goes through so many perils in order to reach Bear, and because other munaqsri want to protect Cassie, there is always someone to fight through as well. We want to see Cassie reach Bear, but just as much, it’s interesting seeing what danger or obstacle she’ll have to cross next.
Although Ice stumbles a little in fleshing out its love story, Cassie is still a compelling main character, and the Arctic setting is brutal and beautiful. But most importantly of all, I never would have read the original East of the Sun, West of the Moon tale were it not for this faithful and engaging adaptation. I hear there are plenty more out there to enjoy, so it looks like another reading journey has only just begun.