As I see it, there are two different ways to adapt a fairy tale into a full-length novel. You can either reinterpret the entire shebang with a whole new spin on the formerly familiar (ala A Curse Dark as Gold or The Magic Circleitle"> Beauty) or you can take the essential parts of the original tale and just fill them out with some depth and padding (ala ). Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow falls squarely into the latter category. Now if I was a fairy tale snob I might get all huffy that Jessica Day George’s book stays so close to the original fairy tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon. And maybe I’d even have a reason to object, if it weren’t for the fact that George’s text is just so enjoyable to read. Basically it all comes down to a likable heroine, a great story, wonderful Norwegian touches, and a tale that will age beautifully as the years go by. When it comes to adapting a fairy tale into a full-length novel, George writes with a steady hand.
She never had a name, this small girl, the last born in her family. The daughter of a poor woodcutter, the child’s mother is so disappointed to have yet another female mouth to feed that everyone refers to the girl as simply "the pika". Not having a name can be dangerous when you live in a land of trolls who’d like nothing better than to snatch you away. Fortunately, one day the pika frees a white reindeer trapped in the wood and it gives her two gifts as thanks: a name and the ability to understand the words of animals. The second gift seems great but turns against the lass when a huge white polar bear enters her home one night and demands that she come with him to his palace in the north. If she does so for just one year then her family will be rich and she will be free to go back. But what is it about this palace that seems so odd? What do the strange inscriptions say? Why do the servants disappear when she asks questions? And why, oh why, is there a strange man sleeping next to her in bed every night?
I think that more than almost any other fairy tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon has always been one of my favorites. It’s this bizarre amalgamation of a bunch of different stories. There’s the man under a beastly spell like in Beauty and the Beast. There’s the girl looking at his forbidden face at night like in the tale of Cupid and Psyche. And then there’s the long journey as the girl encounters magical beings in a quest to regain the man she loves, as in The Snow Queen. Stories where girls go out and get a job done appeal to me, and George’s heroine is likable while still making the requisite mistakes needed to keep the plot going. What George does well is to take the original tale, stick with it practically to the letter, and then explain some of the moments that don’t make as much sense out of context. For example, why would the troll princess love something as simple as a golden spindle or a golden carding comb? Well, trolls have an obsession with human objects and try to act as human as possible sometimes. That, in turn, reminded me of the polar bears in the book The Golden Compass, and so it goes. The pacing is also pretty good, though I was surprised that it took us to page 181 for the lass to betray the isbjorn (the other word for polar bear).
Of course, there aren’t many moments of deep introspection in this novel. For example, when the heroine makes a deal with the isbjorn on the condition that her family become wealthy, he promptly forces another bear to kill itself so that her no good brother can find the corpse and become rich. You’d think the lass would think long and hard about the consequences of her choices, but I suppose she has other stuff on her mind. And for an all-powerful Troll Queen who inspires fear in her minions, the final showdown between her and the lass is accurate to the original tale but may strike some as vaguely anti-climactic when compared to contemporary fantasy face-offs.
I also would have liked it if a little more time had been spent examining the fact that no woman has ever stayed a whole year in the polar bear’s frozen palace without somehow seeing his face at night. Clearly this original tale was one of those curiosity-killed-the-cat stories ala Pandora. I don’t know that it’s a fair criticism for a story to make these days, though. It would have been nice if George has spoken a little bit about how unfair it is to withhold the rules in a game and then blame a player for not following them to the letter. Ah well.
In terms of age appropriateness, there’s no reason in the world that a fairy tale loving ten-year-old wouldn’t enjoy Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow. Yes, part of the story involves a girl who keeps finding a man coming in and sleeping in her bed, but he’s always full clothed and never so much as speaks to her. Really, this is just an adventure novel couched in a great old tale. The kind of thing everyone can enjoy, and many will.
Notes on the Cover: Extra points for avoiding ye olde dismembered girl. The side view of the face is original and interesting. She’s blond in the book, so that’s accurate, as is the parka she’s wearing. And I like just how much blank space is present. Nice. Ten points for class, Bloomsbury.
Other Blog Reviews: Curled Up with a Good Kid’s Book, Squeaky Books, My Clean Book Reviews, Michelle’s Minions, Never Jam Today, Angieville, And Another Book Read, Estella’s Revenge, and The Wind is Free
Other Reviews: Meridian Magazine,
Jessica Day George gives the skinny behind the names and the original story on her website.
Miss Erin and Little Willow interview Ms. George about her books.
Squeakybooks also has an interview.
And Innovative had yet another interview (the woman gets around).
For a complete listing of all the different variations on this fairy tale, go no further than SurLaLune Fairy Tales.
And finally, watch Jessica discuss her book here: