The Snow Queen, by Mercedes Lackey (Harlequin Luna, 2008)

In the Five Hundred Kingdoms, powerful magic known as the Tradition influences everything, forcing people into a variety of well-worn Paths inspired by fairy tales and folklore. Left unchecked, this could result in disaster and misery, which is why long ago, the Godmothers were created, people capable of understanding and manipulating the Tradition in order to determine the best, most appropriate outcome. One such Godmother is Aleksia, also known as the Ice Fairy or Snow Queen, who dwells in the Palace of Ever-Winter and watches over several nearby Kingdoms. Lately, she’s begun to chafe at her duties, worried that she’s becoming as cold and distant as the persona she affects when dealing with her guests. She’s in the middle of teaching a pair of wayward, star-crossed mortals about the power of love and the need to be careful what you wish for (very much echoing the traditional tale of the Snow Queen), when news reaches her, which will force her to take a much more direct involvement in the world around her.

It seems that someone using the name of the Snow Queen has destroyed several villages in their entirety, freezing them solid. If Aleksia leaves this unchecked, it’s not just her reputation that’s on the line, it’s her very nature, for if the Tradition believes the Snow Queen to be an evil sorceress, that’s just what she’ll become, and that ilk never come to a good end. And thus, Aleksia sets forth in a quest to find this false Snow Queen before it’s too late. However, she won’t be alone, for several others have set out on a similiar quest, seeking the ghostly Icehart, which might also be behind the villages’ destructions. Both separately and together, Aleksia and her companions will brave the lands of the dead, the ever-present danger of bandits, merciless forest spirits, and more, before they reach the end of their journey. Can the small band of heroes defeat the twin menaces of the Icehart and the Snow Witch, and find a happily ever after for the people affected by this tale gone awry?

I’ve really enjoyed this series so far. Lackey does a great job of taking the old, familiar fairy tales and imbuing them with a certain metafictional self-awareness, looking at them from the inside and the outside, even as she creates something new. For instance, even as she reenacts the events of the Snow Queen (boy kidnapped by wicked sorceress, heart frozen, girl goes through many obstacles to rescue him and melt the ice in his heart), she’s recasting the participants in a whole new light, and giving the traditional antagonist of the tale some perfectly valid motivations. In the world of the Tradition, there’s a reason for these events working out as they do. And even as this story within the story plays out, there are similiar events on a grander scale taking place, echoing them even as they draw on other elements. Lackey draws on a few different stories, including East of the Sun, West of the Moon, as she works it all together, injecting it with cultural aspects strongly reminiscent of Northern Europe (as witnessed by the use of reindeer, and character names like Anoushka, Aleksia, and Annukka) to deliver a fantasy work that’s different from what one usually sees. I’m a sucker for retold fairy tales, and Lackey really delivers here.

If I were to have any complaints about this book, it’s that it ends almost abruptly, with things tied up in the course of just a few pages, and the last remaining threads quickly dealt with. I guess my disgruntlement in this regard is due to the sympathetic natures and relatability of the characters; I had enough fun journeying with them, that it’s a shame their tale wraps up so quickly after the climax of the story. It’s not quite a happily ever after for them all, but it’s close, and sometimes you just want a little more hint of their lives to come. Also, the way in which certain relaionships come about seems sudden, with very little space given to developing them earlier on. I guess this may be part of Lackey’s way of honoring the spirit of the fairy tales she draws upon, in which love develops swiftly and without warning.

Those minor flaws aside, The Snow Queen is a highly enjoyable story, and a perfectly fun way to kill a few hours. The Tales of the ive Hundred Kingdoms aren’t as complex or epic as some of Lackey’s works, but they’re great fun, with believable characters and an entertaining plot. You could do far worse, and I’ll be looking forward to whatever comes next in the series. (I’m holding out hope for a retold Hans the Hedgehog, myself…)

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