Imaginative daydreamer Hazel doesn’t really fit in anywhere – except with her next door neighbor Jack, who’s been her best friend since practically forever. That is, until he suddenly stops talking to her. Her mother tries to convince her that this is just something that happens, but then Jack disappears, the prisoner of the Snow Queen. Only Hazel knows enough about fairy tales to follow him into the woods – but even she’s not prepared for everything she finds there.
I’ve always loved Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen,” but unlike his more famous stories about lovestruck mermaids and misplaced cygnets, I’ve never seen any updates or revisions of it. Since Ursu’s first trilogy was pretty good, I figured I’d give this one a try.
My biggest problem with Ursu’s earlier books was that it often seemed like she was trying too hard to be funny, with variable results. Here, she’s jettisoned that in favor of a more dreamy, story book tone. Again, the results are variable, but overall it’s an improvement – her prose is much stronger. It still gets in the way of itself a bit, though. The entire first half of the book is a slow, thoughtful exploration of Hazel’s various difficulties: her father took off abruptly and is barely in touch, her mother is struggling a bit to keep them afloat financially, she’s by turns bullied and ignored at school, her teacher doesn’t understand her, Jack’s mother is suffering from incapacitating depression, she’s growing up too fast and not fast enough, and then of course Jack’s total abandonment of her before his disappearance. All of these are handled deftly – the way Hazel processes her father’s abandonment through Jack and effect a parent’s severe depression can have on their child are particularly well done – but the overall structure suffers for it. Hazel circles these woes around and around in her head (as Ursu’s characters tend to do) until it becomes tiresome for the reader. Plus, it leaves the book with a giant first act, a medium second, and a rushed and somewhat anticlimactic third.
That said, Hazel was an excellent protagonist, quiet as she was. I liked her relationship with her mother and her mother’s characterization in general – she doesn’t quite understand her daughter, but you can tell she’s trying…and perhaps understands a bit more than Hazel thinks she does. I also liked that Hazel is adopted and the way she negotiates both that and being the only Indian kid in her Minneapolis school – it’s something that I haven’t seen before in kids’ fantasy.
The fairy tale aspect of the story was also very well handled. Shades of Anderson’s other stories run through this one – The Little Match Girl, The Red Shoes – but in unexpected ways. The characters Hazel encounters in the words are terrifying or heartbreaking or both, as all characters in fairy tale woods should be. I especially liked the Snow Queen; she’s not evil, she just is, and her hold over Jack is something that Hazel has to break from Jack’s end of things, not the Snow Queen’s. (Also, when Jack first gets into her sleigh, she offers him Turkish Delight, to his complete bafflement, and I laughed out loud.)
Overall, this book could’ve benefited from some trimming and rebalancing, but that doesn’t take away from its lovely, lyrical nature and strong characters. Four cupcakes.