Searching for “books like Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis” led me to Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, because it is based on a Norwegian fairy tale which is a Cupid and Psyche story and then I read a fabulous review on Vishy’s blog of East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Jackie Morris, another retelling of the same myth. I was all set to buy it, except: I didn’t find a Kindle version. Finally, I read an altogether different retelling, turns out there are many. But: Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George was, after all this effort, almost a disappointment.
I don’t like to write “bad reviews” and honestly, this book made a quick breezy read that, on any other day, I would have found pretty good. My high expectations got in the way.
The Story: The book starts with a young girl, an unwanted last child. She’s called “pika“ (which apparently just means girl) by her poor family and Lass by her favourite brother Hans Peter. Of all her brothers, Lass is drawn to Hans Peter because like her, he doesn’t quite belong in the family. Being a grown-up, he’s supposed to be out in the world; instead, he’s returned from a voyage, somewhat broken, and stays at home carving weird symbols out of wood.
Years later, a polar bear, an “isbjørn” shows up at their house. He asks Lass to accompany him to his palace and she reluctantly agrees. The deal is: she must stay with him for a whole year and in return, the bear will make her family rich. At the palace, Lass spends her days in the library, chatting with the servants (from fawns to salamanders) and dining with the isbjørn.
But the ice palace is full of mysteries. Every night, a man slips into Lass’s room and sleeps on her bed, slinking away each morning. The walls are covered with symbols like the ones Hans Peter carves. Slowly, Lass discovers that the isbjørn and the servants of the palace are under the curse of a troll princess, and she must do what she can to save them.
“Love? What do you know about love?”
“It’s at the heart of every story,” Rollo said with authority. “If humans could avoid falling in love, you would never get yourselves into any trouble.”
My thoughts: I like the plot and the folksy atmosphere right from the first page. The it’s-so-cold,-you-can’t-feel-yourself wintry details are exotic for someone forever on the verge of melting in the heat of India. And the frequent references to Norwegian sayings and customs, bits of the local language here and there definitely go a long way in creating the mood. But that’s where my likes end.
The writer mentions in her acknowledgments that she fell in love with the letter “ø” which led to this book. I love the use of language in books, it adds an extra something, a feel of the place. I have no idea how most of the words were supposed to sound – but I figured the “ø” is like the German “ö” (correct me if I’m wrong) It was fun relating the words to English or the legends to ones you know. But for me the book does not manage to go beyond a sort of crush on the Norwegian culture. Sure, considerable research must have gone into the book – but it has no point other than too ooh and aah over this Norwegian folktale.
In the Till We Have Faces, Lewis takes the Eros and Psyche myth and tells it from the point of view of the apparently jealous sister and plays out his version of the events. There is something to learn from the retelling.
Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow is just a fairy tale expanded with descriptions of ice and dialogue. The characters are one dimensional at best. They make choices without any thought about the repercussions. Lass lets her isbjørn kill a bear, so that her hunter brother can say he did it. The isbjørn promises the bear, who by the way is pleading not to be killed, that his soul will go to heaven for his sacrifice. For Lass, who understands and empathizes with animals, this is enough. She lets servants die for her unquenchable curiousity and only ‘feels bad’ about it afterwards. She lets the man who slips into her bed every night carry her back into bed when she tries to get away and only protests with a ‘this is silly’. I get it, all these instances are okay in every fairy tale, but that’s not what George claims to have written. She has tried to make her story more than a straightforward fairy tale by adding emotions and thoughts in some convenient places.
The book feels like a half-baked idea. You’re told the lass and the isbjørn have conversations over dinner and they like each other’s company, but the author never takes the effort to show us one of these scenes. When the lass goes off to rescue her prince, there’s no mention why she’s doing it – no gradual falling in love that a proper romance demands. Wherever adding her own pieces of plot to the story is required, the author conveniently falls back on the formulaic fairy tale. I suppose the only thing different from the original fairy tale is Hans Peter’s thread of story. And while it is neatly tied up in the end, it’s wonky along the way.
I was discussing this book with a friend and she told me that that is what young adult literature is. But I don’t accept that! I don’t read a lot of YA, but I resent the assumption that YA implies underdeveloped characters and simplistic writing. For me, the problem with the book is that what one looks for in a fairy tale itself is far different from what one wants from a retelling of a fairy tale – and the author seems not to have realized that.
Do you read YA? You don’t agree with my friend, do you? And what about retellings? Is a rewording the same as a retelling for you? This, sadly, wasn’t enough for me.
I read this for the Once Upon a Time Challenge.