I wanted to like this more than I did for a few reasons. I loved the author's Chronus Chronicles series, and I am absolutely crazy about the fairy tale, "The Snow Queen." Another wonderful aspect of this novel is that the main character, Hazel, is a young girl who is Indian in ethnicity (from the country), although adopted by a white, American couple. I think that Ursu has something powerful to say about being 'other' in a society that is primarily of a certain race/culture. How that can impact a young person, and the wounds it causes that person as they walk through a world where they feel alien.
I also enjoyed the deep friendship that Hazel has with Jack. However, I felt that this aspect of the novel, which is probably the crucial element, fell short. Hazel is almost obsessed with Jack. He's like an anchor to her in a stormy sea that her world has become since her parents' divorce. While I don't mind that she is bonded to Jack, I never felt that Jack was as bonded to Hazel as she was to him, which bothered me. Understanding the fairy tale source helps to appreciate the rift that forms between them, but as it was written, it's not enough. We are given breadcrumbs (if you'll forgive the unintentional pun) to suggest that Jack's issues are also about his mother's bout with depression, but while I can see that Hazel and Jack spend so much time together, I could have used more of his viewpoint on how important his relationship to Hazel was to him. Clearly she was the right person to save him, but more depth on his point of view would have been great.
Ursu made the choice of ending this novel with some questions left in the air. I can't fault her on that, but it did leave me dissatisfied about some situations that weren't addressed, both in the winter woodland and in the lives of both Hazel and Jack. Despite that, I do have the conviction that things will work out for Hazel and Jack. Even though the problems in their families might not be resolved, we know they have each other to get through those times. Also, knowing that Hazel has found more connections in her life other than her mother (and absentee father) and Jack. She needs those. She also needs to know she is fine as she is. She needed that validation, especially with the way her father failed her. One scene I was so glad that Ursu included, her mother telling her that she was perfect and didn't need to change, was very important. Kids need to hear from their parents that they are approved of and loved despite any perceived short-comings.
As far as "The Snow Queen" retelling, it was well-done, and I liked the manner in which Ursu personalized it to Hazel and Jack's story. I felt that the White Queen's menace and authority was slightly undermined by the resolution. I would have loved more descriptive imagery of her Ice Palace. I liked how Ursu creates a world of magic that intersects with the 'real world' in that children travel to this other place to escape from their disappointing lives on the real side of the woods. I hurt for the children who suffer from the cruel effects of selfish magic that the woods bring out in adults and the creatures who live in the woods.
Ursu's writing is good. She drew me into Hazel's story and I felt for this wonderful little girl. It broke my heart to see her feeling so disconnected and flawed. No child should feel that way. I am all for color-blind adoptions, but I feel that her parents should have worked harder to make sure Hazel wasn't alienated by the fact that her ethnicity was distinctive from her parents and many of her peers. I loved the fact that Ursu does address this so poignantly, but she doesn't offer a lot of solutions for the issues Hazel felt.
Overall, I think my biggest issues with this novel were the lack of resolution on those crucial issues and the fact that I think some really important aspects of the story (outside of Hazel and Jack's bond) weren't dealt with in the depth I wanted. I know this is a book for younger readers, but the maturity of the writing makes me want more from the author as far as an emotional resonance and completion about the familial issues faced by Hazel and Jack.
I would be curious to see what a younger reader thinks of this book. If they grasp the deeper, melancholy aspects of this novel. I feel that its melancholy and darker elements hit the right note for a mature reader, but might be lost on a younger reader. Although the ending is hopeful, I can't help feeling a lingering sadness now that I have finished it.
Overall rating: 3.5/5.0 stars.