Review: ICE by Sarah Beth Durst

03Feb10

Title: ICE

Author: Sarah Beth Durst

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Year Published: 2009

Recommended: This is difficult. I had some big problems with this book that kept me from enjoying it, but if those things don’t bother you, it’s otherwise an engaging read. And the only way to explain those problems is through some spoilers.

Spoilers: Er, yes. Quite a few. Although as with Ash, knowledge of the source tale pretty much makes ‘spoilers’ irrelevent, since it follows the basics pretty closely (curse, trolls, etc).

I only finished this book last night, so I don’t have a great deal of perspective on it, but I wanted to get everything down while it’s fresh in my mind. When I was a wee lass, one of my favorite movies was The Polar Bear King, which is an adaptation of the same fairy tale ICE is based on. A princess is wed to a polar bear who becomes a man at night, but because of the nature of his curse she can never see his face. When she disobeys this command, he is whisked away from her to wed a troll princess, and she must rescue him. The fairy tale is in turn a version of the Psyche myth, which always appealed to me because in the end, the princess rescues the prince, even if it was her mistake that got him into trouble in the first place–but really, if she hadn’t broken the rules, she wouldn’t have been able to break the curse either.

In ICE, Cassie’s mother is supposedly dead, but her grandmother tells a story about the daughter of the north wind, and there’s something complicated about a curse and reasons for refusal to marry the polar bear, and promising her daughter, and being kidnapped and taken to a troll castle, etc. It’s been a while since I read the actual fairy tale, and the compressed version presented in ICE never stuck with me, so I’m still not sure quite what was going on. But the idea is that Cassie’s now supposed to marry the polar bear, and since she lives in the arctic at a research station it’s pretty easy for him to show up to claim her. She agrees to marry him if he will rescue her mother from the trolls, because extortion is the best beginning to any healthy relationship.

I didn’t have much of a problem with this set-up. I figured they’d eventually fall in love; what I didn’t understand is why it had to be Cassie that married him, and why Bear was so in love with her from the beginning, and expected her to love him in return. He bargains with her, agreeing to answer a question for every day she stays with him in his castle. She ends up staying for months instead, hanging out with this mystical polar bear, never mind that she left the research station without telling any one and hasn’t sent word back, so they basically think she’s dead. WHAT A CHARMER. On the other hand, despite Bear’s general over-devotion and the fact that I could never picture him as a bear (he just didn’t strike me as bear-like in some fundamental way), their growing friendship was fun and mostly believable.

Now, apart from the personality issues with Cassie, I started to have real problems logistically when Bear explains what he is. He is the spirit responsible for taking care of the souls of polar bears; there are such spirits for all species, sometimes many spirits for a single species, and newborns aren’t given souls unless they’re around to do it. There are a finite number of souls, though they can be put into any species, so one creature most die in order for another to live. While this is not all that unusual a spiritual belief, making it reality in a story that also involves arctic research stations and satellites and GPS has me scratching my head and wondering if there are statistics on the total number of living things in the world and whether it’s increased over time. In a purely magical setting, it wouldn’t have been a problem. In this modern blend of science and magic, it was extremely distracting.

Eventually, Cassie goes home and meets her mother for the first time in a sequence which was wonderful and over far too quickly. She’s never met her mother, and the blend of longing and fear and awkwardness was great. I wished a lot more of the book could be spent grappling with that relationship, but after a week at home Cassie sneaks away again to continue hanging out with Bear, who she’s now in love with and starts to have sex with. So far, so good: their romance was mostly off-stage, but sweet (if you can forget that he blackmailed her into marriage, that is). But right here is where the book took a sharp turn and left me by the roadside. Bear, with his magical matter-manipulating powers, “fixes” the chemical imbalance Cassie’s birth control creates in her body (without telling her or asking her), and gets her pregnant. This is passed off as okay because a) he really, really wants kids, b) he told her when he married her that she was expected to bear his children (which makes the whole setup creepier, imho), and c) he claims he didn’t know she had altered herself intentionally. Cassie immediately feels betrayed and asks that he undo it. He refuses, saying that this was the purpose of the marriage all along and he’s not about to kill his child (who, according to the mythology, does not have a soul yet).

And all of a sudden I’m imagining being out in the middle of nowhere with a mate so powerful he could kill me with a touch, when my survival depends entirely on him, who decides that I should have a child without consulting me and then blocks my ability to end my pregnancy. Abortion debate aside, this level of control is scary. It’s not romantic. It’s not okay. And agreeing to have kids at some point in the future (under duress) does not sign over the control of your body to someone else.

Add to this the fact that Bear just stated, flat out, that he wants her for her baby-producing capabilities; consider that he’s been “in love” with her from the moment he came for her, and I cease to be able to see this as a sweet romance, an uncomplicated story that I can fall into. These are Serious Issues. This is trust, and control, and personal agency, and power.

At least Cassie was upset. This is the impetus to look at her husband’s face at night, rather than being goaded by her family as in the source tale. The weird thing is that I can’t remember Bear specifically warning her not to look; he asks her not to turn around once when he’s in human form behind her, and they always make love in the dark, but he doesn’t lay out the prohibition and the fairy tale is so muddled in the book that I can’t remember if it stated that he’d have to go marry the troll princess if she did this.

Anyway, so he’s off to the troll castle, and Cassie has to go rescue him. Throughout her journey, the constant theme is other people trying to control her reproductive destiny. They don’t want her to risk the baby. They go so far as to restrain her and keep her captive for MONTHS so that she’ll have that baby safely and not cause any trouble. At least this time, they’re presented as villains and obstacles. Cassie doesn’t think much about the pregnancy except as the reason she can’t go save Bear.

Predictably, she saves Bear and has the baby, having completely forgiven her husband and become willing to give up everything for her child. The problem with this isn’t that she decides she wants the baby. It’s that she has no other choice. Her active choice to NOT have a child was overridden; her attempts to decide her own fate, child and all, were overridden. I couldn’t look past that to the adventure, as much as I wanted to. If only Cassie had made a mistake with her birth control, or not been taking it at all, the fact that the issues of forced marriage and forced pregnancy were treated so lightly wouldn’t really have manifested.
On many levels, this is a wonderful story. The arctic setting, a lot of the magic, Cassie’s ingenuity in her mission to save Bear, much of the friendship/romance-building (particularly love when Cassie skates around the ice castle in socks), and the awkward reunion with Cassie’s mother were all great. But I just couldn’t sit back and enjoy the romance when all I could think was “run.”

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