Title: Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow
Author: Jessica Day George
Length: 328 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow is a retelling of a Scandinavian fairy tale that I have never read (“East of Sun, West of Moon”) which features a nameless girl who can speak to animals; an enchanted “ice bear,” or isbjorn; and trolls, among other wondrous things.
I was actually glad that I went into this book without knowing the story being retold. It added to—rather than detracted from—my reading experience. I had nothing to judge it against or by besides its own merits, and it had plenty of those.
The prose was pretty and fairly simple without being simplistic, and in keeping with its fairy tale origins, it painted lovely—but not overly elaborate—pictures of the characters and their surroundings. A lot happens in this book, but the pacing is steady and the narrative rarely drags. The plot begins moving fairly quickly, though there is an adequate amount of exposition, and no one element of the plot gets too much attention compared to the others.
Here’s a small sample:
The east wind lives in a forest with dark trees. The trees do not grow straight or tall, for the wind is too forceful to allow that. But they grow strong, with deep roots and trunks like stone. The branches have been twisted and twined about each other, thrust out at impossible angles from trunks that curl like smoke.
Sometimes, fairy tale retellings stumble over the fact that, to be true to its source, everything “must” happen in a certain way and every character “must” be portrayed in a particular fashion. This can often lead to a novel full of flat characters and a contrived or paint-by-numbers plot. (Sorry, but I felt this way about Deathless.)
While I could definitely see where Jessica Day George was going—in that everything unfolded in an appropriate, if sometimes predictable, way—I nevertheless enjoyed the book immensely. The lass, our heroine, is a charming and spirited young woman who is sometimes rash and even temperamental (as well as insatiably curious). She is in some ways a conventional fairy tale heroine, but that never annoyed me, because George gave her a consistent, distinct voice. The addition of her solemn, mysterious brother Hans Peter and her snarky “pet” wolf, Rollo, also made for some delightful exchanges.
George also created a Norse/Scandinavian world that felt very genuine (to me, at least). She obviously did her research, and while it was certainly simpler and less immersive than, say, the world(s) of Deathless, it was no less believable.
And perhaps most importantly of all, this book felt magical . It was a fairy tale, it read like a fairy tale, and it sought neither to explain the magic it contained, nor to justify it. The magic simply was. I adored and appreciated that a lot.
I also have a weak spot for bears of any kind, but especially magical, talking polar bears, so there’s that.
If you know fairy tales at all, you’ll have an inkling of how this one unfolds and ends. Even so, it is quite tense and even a bit dark (though not too dark for younger readers) in places—and again, I think it helped that I hadn’t read the story it was retelling, because I genuinely didn’t know what would happen on the next page, other than a sort of instinctive “this is how fairy tales go” feeling. There is an air of genuine mystery throughout, and not till the last fifty pages or so do all the threads of all the mysteries begin to really come together.
To round off the review with an unpopular opinion: Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow (or at least the original tale) probably would have made a much better Disney movie than the quasi-retelling of “The Snow Queen” that we got in Frozen. Alas, it wasn’t to be.
Oh, and one last thing: I only have one—totally inconsequential—gripe with the book overall. A selkie features briefly in the lass’ stay at the ice palace, and her isbjorn warns her that selkies “delight in singing to sailors so that their ships run aground on the rocks,” but never have I read about selkies functioning in that way, as if they were mermaids or sirens. Generally, humans kidnap or lure selkies away from their homes, not the other way around. Why are these wonderful creatures so often misrepresented? (sigh)
Also posted on Goodreads.