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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Failed It or Nailed It? Variations on East of the Sun, West of the Moon

Earlier today we saw One Book to Another from Sara, which focused on variations of the East of the Sun, West of the Moon story.  Having read the three books Sara mentioned, I wanted to take the time to give you my impressions of them, and tell you which I think you should read right now and which I think you can safely skip.


Edith Pattou
Rose has always felt out of place in her family, a wanderer in a bunch of homebodies. So when an enormous white bear mysteriously shows up and asks her to come away with him—in exchange for health and prosperity for her ailing family—she readily agrees. The bear takes Rose to a distant castle, where each night she is confronted with a mystery. In solving that mystery, she loses her heart, discovers her purpose, and realizes her travels have only just begun.
As familiar and moving as "Beauty and the Beast" and yet as fresh and original as only the best fantasy can be, East is a novel retelling of the classic tale "East of the Sun, West of the Moon," a sweeping romantic epic in the tradition of Robin McKinley and Gail Carson Levine.

Sarah Beth Durst
When Cassie was a little girl, her grandmother told her a fairy tale about her mother, who made a deal with the Polar Bear King and was swept away to the ends of the earth. Now that Cassie is older, she knows the story was a nice way of saying her mother had died. Cassie lives with her father at an Arctic research station, is determined to become a scientist, and has no time for make-believe.
Then, on her eighteenth birthday, Cassie comes face-to-face with a polar bear who speaks to her. He tells her that her mother is alive, imprisoned at the ends of the earth. And he can bring her back — if Cassie will agree to be his bride.

That is the beginning of Cassie's own real-life fairy tale, one that sends her on an unbelievable journey across the brutal Arctic, through the Canadian boreal forest, and on the back of the North Wind to the land east of the sun and west of the moon. Before it is over, the world she knows will be swept away, and everything she holds dear will be taken from her — until she discovers the true meaning of love and family in the magical realm of Ice.

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow
Jessica Day George

Blessed—or cursed—with an ability to understand animals, the Lass (as she’s known to her family) has always been an oddball. And when an isbjorn (polar bear) seeks her out, and promises that her family will become rich if only the Lass will accompany him to his castle, she doesn’t hesitate. But the bear is not what he seems, nor is his castle, which is made of ice and inhabited by a silent staff of servents. Only a grueling journey on the backs of the four winds will reveal the truth: the bear is really a prince who’s been enchanted by a troll queen, and the Lass must come up with a way to free him before he’s forced to marry a troll princess.

I think this tale, which has definite Beauty and the Beast elements, gives writers a lot to work with, and provides ample ground for a retelling.  But like all Beauty and the Beast stories, it can be hard to get right.
To discuss these 3 variations, I'm going to split it up into sections that I think are the make-it/break-it factors for this story, and tell you whether the book failed it or nailed it.

I warn you now, HERE THAR BE SPOILERS!

The main characters:  Every book is dependent on its characters to draw you in and make you care.  I think with fairy tales, that is doubly true because you basically know the story going in.  The story needs to be fleshed out, of course, but more importantly, the characters have to go from being flat archetypes to "real" people you can root for and connect with.

EastEast: This book suffered from too many.  I think that's part of what held me back from  loving it instead of just liking it.  Each chapter alternates POV, and not just between 1 character and another, but between like 1/2 a dozen.  It felt very much like a plot device, and it kept me from connecting to the characters in the way I wanted to because every time I'd start getting into one's  voice, it would switch to another.  The good thing about it: we got to see glimpses into the Troll Queen's head, which was interesting.  I did eventually connect to the characters, but I think that's due in large part to the fact it's a damn long book.  There's time to get to know them.
Verdict: Neither nailed nor failed.  Not bad, but could have been better.

IceIce:  This one was...interesting for me.  I did like Cassie, at least in the beginning.  And I liked the Bear.  I even liked the peripheral characters.  But together, they never gelled for me.  They never came together.  Things would feel too rushed,  and I felt like good places for character development were being skipped over.  But I liked Cassie's modern sensibilities and her adventurous spirit, which matched the tale nicely.  But about 1/2 way through -- I started liking Cassie less and less.
Verdict: Failed is too strong a word, but I wouldn't call this a Nailed, either.  We'll call it an "Incomplete"

Sun and Moon, Ice and SnowSun and Moon, Ice and Snow: Um, yeah.  The Lass was listed as one of my favorite characters of the year last year, so...Yeah, I liked her.  I love the fairy tale element of a character with no name (which is one of the keys of the original tale), and  JDG did it so well.  It can be hard to connect to a character when you don't even have a name for them, but I always felt the Lass, and she felt authentic.  And I love the Bear (more on that below).  Together, they shine.  But it doesn't stop there: so many of the characters in the book are nicely fleshed out in the way of peripheral characters, and the Lass' brother, Hans Peter -- well, I kinda loved him, too.
Verdict: Nailed.  Repeatedly. (like your mom)

The mythology: Another thing that is crucial in a succcessful retelling is the use of the original tale and the expansion/incorporation of the mythology.  The author has to carve out their chunk of this fairy tale world and make their mark on it, and somehow strike a balance between making the tale their own and still making it recognizable as the tale everyone knows and loves.

EastEast: Pattou did a pretty admirable job.  She added in elements and superstitions that suited the tale very nicely and grounded it in a real place and time, and I enjoyed that.  Rose's journey matched the tale really well, and her time in the troll kingdom was just beautifully done, horrific and breath-takingly fantastic at the same time.  All in all, pretty nice.
Verdict: Nailed it.

IceIce: The is the only retelling of the 3 that is set in modern times, and that made the incorporation of the mythology very interesting.  Pattou also added her own mythology that was unique and memorable, and though there were times I was like, Well, this is just silly, there were other times that I thought it was sort of a genius way to approach the tale.  I quite liked her incorporation of the trolls, as well.
Verdict: Nailed it.  A bit wobbly, but one of the better aspects of the book.

Sun and Moon, Ice and SnowSun and Moon, Ice and Snow: This one for me feels the most authentic in the world and mythology, and it stays pretty faithful to the original tale.  There are elements, especially in regards to the Lass' non-naming and the birth order of the siblings, that I really liked and that added a sense of culture and belief, and grounded it in a real place for me.  The end felt a tiny bit rushed, and I would have loved more exposure to the troll world, but all in all, this felt the most dynamic and whole.
Verdict: Nailed it.

The romance:
When you think about it, B&tB stories are somewhat creepy at their core: stemming from their Eros and Psyche days, they revolve around a girl who must fall in love with some creature that she either can't see or can't communicate with -- or both -- but who she suspects is some kind of monster.  In this case, a giant bear who would normally want to eat your face off.  So yeah, difficulties.
Making an audience believe a love story between 2 such characters can be quite the challenge, and it's interesting to see how writers meet it.

EastEast: It took me a little while to care about this relationship, but it did eventually get there.  I don't know that it ever awoke butterflies in my stomach, but I did like Rose and her Bear.    I felt there was potential for love there, and the potential grew and grew when Rose sets out on her journey, but I never felt it quite fully.
Verdict: Nailed it.  But just barely.

IceIce: No.  Just, no.  The writing tells us that Cassie and her Polar Bear King are in love - and they have lots and lots of sex and make a baby to prove it - but never once did I feel anything for either of them, or from either of them.  Don't get me wrong, I think the Bear liked Cassie (he was lonely, afterall), and he certainly needed her.  But we basically go from "Come with me, little girl, if you want your mother to live" + Cassie's repulsed fascination, to twoo wuv.  It just flips.  There were things that I think, had they gone on longer, would have led me to believe in their romance at some point, but it was all so truncated, I never bought it.
Verdict: Fail.

Sun and Moon, Ice and SnowSun and Moon, Ice and Snow: Aaaand we have a winner, folks. I felt the love between the Lass and Bear.  I bought it because I loved Bear.  Like a school girl with the world's creepiest crush ("You're in love with a bear, you say?  Like, a Furry?"), I loved Bear.  I stenciled Misty + Bear 4eva on my notebooks.  Practiced signing my name Mrs. Polar Bear King.  I kid, I kid, but seriously.  I loved the love.  The relationship between Bear and the Lass is so gentle and develops so slowly and perfectly.  There was no creep-out factor for me.  There were butterflies.  It was beautiful.
Verdict: Nailed. It.

Final verdict:
Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow emerges the clear winner.  I've said on multiple occasions that I think it has become one of those definitive versions for me; I don't think I'll read another that will overtake it.  East comes in a promising 2nd, and I think if I hadn't read Sun and Moon first, I would have liked East more, but I was constantly comparing it.  Ice comes in a disappointing last.  It had an interesting premise and showed potential, but the execution missed the mark for me.

Skip it
Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow
Buy it

Borrow it


  1. If you are looking for a good non-YA retelling, try Once Upon a Winter's Night by Dennis L. McKiernan. It is one of my favorite books ever!

  2. Ohhhhhhhh. I just won Ice, and some of things you said about it are totally making me wish I hadn't (particularly that thing about them, um, well, you know).
    I agree with what you said about East having too many voices. I liked having all the story going on and seeing all the sides of it, but it gave the story a case of the hicups: everytime it got really going, it would change narration, and I remember one point in particluar where I was really thrown off by it, but I still really, really, like this book. I bought it, and I've reread it quite a few times. Also, don't bash my White Bear! You're obviously biased. XP

  3. No bashing the Bear, ZG! I liked the Bear in each of the stories.
    Though yes, I am most certainly biased. Sun and Moon NAILED IT.

  4. Yes, Sun and Moon - GREAT book. ;) Haven't read the other two. I wanna give them both a try...just because...but I'll probably end up feeling the same way. Is the sex in "Ice" explicit?

  5. No, not at all! It was slightly off-putting though, because I didn't feel the relationship development, and because she hasn't actually seen him as anything but a bear yet, but...whatever, it just was.

  6. Misty I loved this post!! Love, love, loved it!! I think you should do this type of post more often.

    (And I totally choked at the mom joke. Laughed SO hard...)


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