Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Wandering North: A Book Review

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow is a Young Adult fantasy novel I read recently and would like to share some reflections on.

First, the obligatory back-of-the-book summary:

When a great white bear offers a woodcutter's daughter untold riches in return for her company, she accepts, believing she has made a wise decision.  Even though the lass is offered every luxury at the bear's castle, she begins to feel like a prisoner.  Then, when servants start to disappear, the lass realizes the bear may know more than he will say.  Determined to learn the truth, the lass sets out on a windswept journey east of the sun and west of the moon to fight for the man she has only just discovered is her one true love.

As a retelling of the Norwegian fairy tale of East o' the Sun, West o' the Moon, this story remembers its roots.

The setting is satisfyingly Scandinavian; and I was pleased to learn that Ms. George studied Old Norse and its literary tradition in college.  It's not a historical novel by any means, but there is clearly an underlying knowledge of the culture and folk tradition running throughout the narrative.

The main character is known only as "lass," and the neglect of a bitter mother to name her, and an encounter with a white reindeer who gives her one, at once struck the right chords of enchantment.

When the lass goes off with the bear to a palace of ice, there is an overlapping of mythologies that, for me, loosened the first grasp of the mysterious white north.  And the between narrative is full of a lot of wandering in rooms and slow revelations.  I got distracted somewhere in the middle and didn't pick the book up again until a week and a half had passed.  But the storyline bursts through toward the last third and picks up pace again on the well-tread path of the original fairy tale.

There are some moments of pure beauty which I enjoyed:

Wind does not need translation.  It speaks the language of men, of animals and birds, of rocks and trees and earth and sky and water.  It does not eat or sleep, or take shelter from the weather.  It is the weather.

And it lives.

The east wind lives in a forest dark with 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.

And its opposite, the grotesque:

Not even Rollo could think of a comment to make about the trolls' dancing.  It was horrible and fascinating at the same time.  In time to the beat of the thumping, wailing music, they hunched their shoulders and stamped their feet, lurched from side to side, and slapped their heavy hands on their bellies to make a counterpoint to the musicians' drumming.  It was like a macabre parody of human dancing.  Something about it sent a curl of terror up from the lass's stomach into her throat, and she thought she might scream.

I found the dialogue cumbersome at times.  There is an over-reliance on dialogue tags to convey characters' meanings and emotions, which borders on the silly when they start to "sigh" and "grouch," rather than speak their lines.

Other things that resonated with me and conveyed the essence of fairy tales: the bear's pelt parka, reminiscent of a selkie's seal skin; the trolls' fascination with humanity's ability to make things; the drama of the four winds, how they are part of the world but not masters of it; and the characterization of a poor Norwegian woodcutter's family.

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow was entertaining and a good story, with real glimpses of truth and beauty that sometimes get lost in the mundane.


1 comment:

  1. Mmm, now I'm curious and might read it. I enjoyed Day George's young middle grade novel Tuesdays at the Castle, and I love the old East o' the Sun, West o' the Moon. There are a number of retellings of that I'd like to read. :)

    Thanks for the review!


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