Ice by Sarah Beth Durst

ice by sarah beth durst Publication year: 2010
Genre: Fantasy/Fairytale retelling
Time and place: the contemporary Arctic, mostly
Narrated in: third-person limited
First sentence:Once upon a time, the North Wind said to the Polar Bear King, ‘Steal me a daughter, and when she grows, she will be your bride.’
Verdict: Loved it!

When Cassie was little, her grandma used to tell her the same story, again and again. It was about a woman who had been pledged to marry the Polar Bear King, but had fallen in love with someone else. The Bear helped the two get together and protected them from the wrath of the woman’s adoptive parent, the North Wind, in exchange for their future daughter’s hand. But the North Wind eventually did find them out, and in his fury took the woman to the end of the earth, east of the Sun and west of the Moon. “And that’s where your mother still is”, concluded grandmother her story.

At first, child Cassie believed that every word her grandmother told her was true. As years passed however, she eventually came to realize that the fairytale is nothing but a story. As much as she would have liked to believe that her mother is not dead, merely gone, there’s no such thing as magical polar bears, or sentient winds who take vengeance on people.

Now eighteen, Cassie spent all her life in a research station in the Arctic, where her father works as a scientist. She loves ice and polar bears and she plans to take long distance classes to specialize in the field too. She is very confident in her survival/hunting skills, so when a beautiful specimen passes her by she gives chase without thinking twice. Just as she gets ready to shoot him with a tranquilizer dart, the bear vanishes in the ice wall behind him. She does of course find this strange, but what is stranger still is her father’s reaction when he hears about it: he immediately makes arrangements for Cassie to go live somewhere else, away from the only home she ever knew.

It turns out that the story was true. Cassie has been promised to the Polar Bear King when she was just a baby, and now the bear has come to claim her. This means that Cassie’s mother is alive! Blinded by this realization, all Cassie can think is finding a way to bring her mother back. She promises herself that she will marry the bear, if only her mother is safely returned to the station. The bear agrees, and carries Cassie to his ice palace north of the North Pole, where they’re supposed to live happily ever after.

From here on the story veers towards the classic Beauty and the Beast terrain: beast keeps girl prisoner, yet charms girl and both fall in love. But this is a retelling of another fairy tale, so the falling in love is merely the beginning…

General impression
Let’s just start by saying I loved this book. For many reasons, a few of which are listed here, in no particular order:

  • Cassie has to be one of my favorite characters. Although she’s only eighteen, she knows what she wants out of life and is not afraid to go out and get it. Even when the going got really tough, she still persevered, becoming downright unstoppable in her quest. She isn’t perfect, she makes mistakes, like any other teenager would, but her intentions are good and on the whole I liked her a lot.
  • the Polar Bear King, or Bear for short, was also a very interesting character. What I liked most about him was his mission — he’s a munasqri, a taker and giver of souls, so he has to be there when polar bears die or are being born — and his dedication towards it. Oh, and the perk of being a munasqri was a pretty cool one too: he is able to manipulate molecules, and uses this ability in very varied ways, from making a tasty meal appear out of nothing, or make Cassie not feel the cold, to sculpting magnificent things out of ice. And then of course there is one other thing, that usually gets criticized, but I thought was sort of cute, in a way: show spoiler
  • The writing style: the story starts out slowly and calmly (especially as, at first, Bear and Cassie are wary around one another). Bit by bit its intensity increases, and I loved the way the author manages to make the reader really feel what is at stake. I personally hate cold, and as such the Arctic is far from being one of my favorite places. Cassie however loves it, with its ice, and dangers, and its polar bears, and her attachment to it transcends the pages of the book. Just as her love for Bear does, and I couldn’t remain indifferent to it. I rooted for Cassie to succeed like I hadn’t in a long, long time :)
  • Cassie’s adventures: the author pulls no punches and Cassie is treated with no gloves. She is the main character, of course, and as such it is obvious she will not actually die throughout the story; but she gets pretty close to it more than once. Her adventures are difficult and she does in fact get seriously hurt, and this too helps underline just how much she has at stake, drawing me into the story more and more.
  • Back to the munasqri thing, another thing I thought was very, very well done was the part where Cassie didn’t want to spend her days just moping around the castle, by herself while Bear was away, taking care of new born bears. She decides to put her training and the information she has access to, via her father’s research station, to good use. She knows (with approximation) where polar bears are about to be born, and she and her Bear become a team, working together for the good of the species. The feminist in me was so happy to see that :)
  • mother-daughter relationship: yet another thing I thought was very well done. Cassie and her mother (Gail, the daughter of the North Wind — making one think of “gale”) don’t get to spend much time together, since Cass is mostly away with her Bear. But I have found the dynamic between them very believable, and I was glad to see it so. show spoiler
  • Cassie-and-baby relationship: show spoiler
  • here’s a quote about the book from an interview of the author’s:

    I wrote this book as a love letter to my husband. It’s about true love… the kind of love where you’d go east of the sun and west of the moon for each other.

    I believe this explains at least some of the intensity I keep going on and on about :)
    Speaking of which, here is my favorite quote from Ice (although I am very aware that it doesn’t work as well outside context as it did in the book) :

    She had a hundred reasons: because Bear had carved a statue of her in the center of the topiary garden, because she could always make him laugh, because he’d let her return to the station, because he won at chess and lost at hockey, because he ran as fast as he could to polar bear births, because he had seal breath even as a human, because his hands were soft, because he was her Bear. “Because I want my husband back,” Cassie said. And, she added silently, because my baby deserves to know him.

I’m fairly certain I have forgotten a few things, but this review is getting very close to 2000 words so I probably have written enough :)

One other thing, not related to the book, but the author: another quote I thought really nice, from another one of her interviews:

I want my books to always have magic in them. I think that’s a wonderful and meaningful thing that a writer can do: add wonder to the world.

Thoughts on the title
I would call it both descriptive and mysterious :)

Thoughts on the ending
The ending was, for me, the weakest part of the book. It isn’t to say I did not like it, but it wasn’t as intense as the rest of the book, and so it felt a bit like a cop out.

show spoiler

Recommend it to?
Everyone who likes fantasy books or fairytale retellings :)

Buy this from | Buy this from | Sarah Beth Durst’s website | Sarah Beth Durst on Twitter | Read the first two chapters

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