Friday, May 11, 2012

Ice by Sarah Beth Durst

Ice by Sarah Beth Durst

Target Audience: YA/Teen

Summary: Cassie Dasent grew up in a research station on the Arctic Ice, learning to survive on the frozen tundra and to track polar bears when most children her age were learning cursive and long division. The ice is all she’s ever known and all she’s ever wanted to know. The only thing missing from her life is a mother, a mother who died just after Cassie was born – unless you believe the story her grandmother tells about how Cassie’s mother was the daughter of the North Wind, and who promised her infant daughter to be the bride of the Polar Bear King in exchange for permission to stay with the mortal man she loved and was then blown to the land of the trolls by her father as punishment. Which of course, Cassie does not, not anymore.

Until the giant polar shows up on her birthday, a polar bear unfazed by tranquilizer darts, a polar bear who walks through solid glaciers, calls to Cassie by name, and has come to claim his bride. While she has little desire to be the wife of a polar bear, Cassie agrees to go with him on one condition – he free her mother from the land of the trolls. And so the bargain is struck.

Type of adaptation: Modernization

I won’t say that I had misgivings about this book, because that’s too strong a word with too many negative connotations, but I did have a number of questions upon starting this book, not the least of which was, How exactly is this story going to work when modernized, especially in such a scientific setting? I can totally get behind the idea that if there is magic left in the world, it’s in the Arctic regions mostly unexplored. But a premise based so heavily on a scientific viewpoint? That was what got me.

Yet Durst manages it surprisingly well.

Cassie is a very scientifically minded individual, and that doesn’t really change even after she’s been introduced to the fact that magic is, in fact, very real in her world. And it’s the fact that she continues to be so scientifically minded that gives us the conflict in the first half of the novel. Once she accepts that the giant polar bear she was tracking because he’d give her dad’s team excellent data is, in fact, the polar bear king from her grandmother’s old fairy tale, we get to see Cassie’s scientific world come crashing into coexistance with the magical world. And while there’s the part of Cassie that says, Hey, I’m a modern woman and my mother can’t just promise me into a marriage!, there’s also the part that says, okay, if this part of the story is true, then my mother isn’t dead, she’s a prisoner, so hey, I’ve got a bargaining chip. And she uses. She’ll marry the polar bear king, she says, if he frees her mother. She’s told it’s impossible. She doesn’t much care. That’s her price.

And so, she sets off with the Polar Bear King, discovering as they travel that he’s not so much a king as a mystical soul-ferrier, called a munaqsri. Basically, each species of creature and plant has one of these munaqsri whose job is to collect the souls of the dying and deliver them to the babies being born. If they are late to a birth or they haven’t collected a soul, the newborn baby will be stillborn. If they miss a death, the soul floats away beyond the edges of the world. Bear, as he instructs Cassie to call him, is the munaqsri for the polar bears, and he needs a wife because only the children of munaqsri can become munaqsri themselves. Basically, he needs an heir. Cassie’s not particularly happy to learn this, but she did make a promise, and she will honor it, provided that things go slow and she not be required to bear his child any time soon.

What I appreciate most about this character is that she is not even close to being a weak-ass heroine. I knew Cassie and I were going to get along all right when I read the scene where the stranger first enters her room. In the darkness, she hears someone get into bed with her, and the man claims to be Bear there to share the wedding bed, but Cassie is adamant that she married a polar bear, not a human, so he needs to get the hell out of her room. He says he can shift forms, but she’s having none of it and threatens him with her ice axe. He calls her bluff, so she swings it at his head until he leaves. Awesome.

What I also appreciate about Bear’s character is that, yes, Cassie made a bargain, but when he sees how unhappy she is, he’s willing to let her go, as he was willing to do for her mother before her. All he wants is for her to give him a chance, so that’s what he asks for. Specifically, the bargain is that for every question he answers, she has to stay one day. And he uses that time to show her the kind of life she could have with him, with the magic he has to offer. And so one week turns into two and two turns into three, and before long, Cassie is staying because she enjoys the time she spends with him. In other words, they become friends. And, after the night with the axe, he also makes it clear that he won’t renew any romantic advances to Cassie unless she very clearly gives him the okay. This polar bear is a gentleman, in other words.

When Cassie’s homesickness sets in, Durst shows her modernization talents because while, yes, a lot of it is genuine homesickness and a desire to meet the mother she never knew, most of it is driven by the fact that there is nothing for her to do in the palace. And this is a girl used to doing things. She knows all about surviving on the ice and tracking polar bears and running the station, and so for her to sit around all day and have a magical polar bear carve ice sculptures of her is nothing close to the purpose-driven life she was expecting to leave. And it’s the prospect of that being her whole future that really drives her desire to return home. But once she finds a way to to be useful to Bear and keep occupied herself, she goes straight back, having learned that she can’t reconcile living in the world she grew up in with all that she now knows to be true. That, and, she’s realized she loves him.

Unfortunately, he takes her new willingness for a relationship to mean a willingness to bear his child, so he magically alters the precautions she’d taken against that eventuality. In her anger, she lights the candle (or turns on the flashlight, in this version) to see his human form, and I like this touch – anger rather than curiosity or fear driving her – both because it fits better with the relationship that’s been drawn and because it adds another flaw to this character.

It’s no curse that’s enacted this time, but rather a bargain made and broken, for the price asked of Bear to free Cassie’s mother was that she never look upon him in his human form. So now he has to go live with the trolls and marry the troll princess, which is a problem in more ways than one.

Gone are the old women in this version. Durst replaces them with the munaqsri that Cassie goes to for help. Unfortunately, they’re far less helpful than their fairy tale counterparts. At first, they won’t help because Cassie is human, not munaqsri, and even though Bear is one of them, he is considered beyond their reach. Also, with the polar bear souls unclaimed, they’re free game for other munaqsri, which is good for them because souls have a tendency to be scarce. We’re introduced to a very interesting dynamic here, clearly shown a world in which even the spirit guardians of species are in battle with each other, much like the species themselves. But Cassie tries to win them back to her side by revealing that she’s carrying a munaqsri child. Except that when they learn this, they refuse to allow Cassie to put the baby in danger and so essentially kidnap her.

It lends a very “Snow Queen” vibe to the retelling, and presents one more challenge to Cassie’s journey, especially as she’s in this captivity for several months, all the while getting closer and closer to the time of delivery. And here enters really the only qualm I have with this book. Cassie is pregnant, probably eight months by the time she actually gets to the rescuing bit. And over the course of her pregnancy, she almost starves in a snowstorm, dives into the Arctic Sea, climbs a mountain, jumps off a cliff, travels by violent wind, and many other dangerous things. Now, I know that women miscarry from slipping and falling. So . . . magical baby is magical? Eh, I guess I can buy that, but I will lift my eyebrow skeptically.

The way that the trolls are handled in this adaptation is masterful. They are seen as formless beings, ruled by whoever can hold shape the longest. What they desire most is life. So the deal they make with Cassie is Bear in exchange for her unborn child – the same deal her mother was forced to make when Cassie was a baby. But before Cassie can make her decision, the baby decides, hey, time to be born! because, come on, that’s how stories work. Unfortunately, when the human munaqsri appears, he has no soul for the baby, and that’s when Cassie puts it together – the trolls, you see, are all those souls who slipped through the munaqsri’s hands, and it is the Troll Princess that becomes the baby’s soul.

To the checklist!
Kick-ass heroine with flaws? Yep. Cassie is a go-getter, stopping at absolutely nothing, willing to do the entirely insane if it means succeeding.That being said, she can also be selfish at times, and she's got a hell of a temper, which in this version, replaces the curiosity.
Dimension given to other players? Yes and yes. Durst has crafted really a wonderful cast of characters here, rich and interesting. Well done.
Repetition eliminated/contained? Yes. Cassie's journey never got old for me. I never felt like it was the same thing over and over.

Overall, this was a well-done adaptation. Yes, sometimes the science got a little skewy – if a munaqsri not having a soul on hand causes stillbirths, what is their explanation for miscarriages? – and there are some eyebrow raising moments, but overall it’s well done. Cassie is a fantastically flawed heroine, and the relationship between her and Bear is built very convincingly. I had my doubts about a modernization with this fairy tale, but I think Durst handled it very well, and this adaptation is definitely worth the read.

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