Now that it’s really hot, I’m recommending a cool book. `North Child’ by Edith Pattou even has a polar bear on the cover. It was first published in America in 2003 under the title `East’. In either name, this Young Adult novel is available in paperback, on Nook, or in a luxury hardback edition. To keep things simple, I’ll stick to the European title. `North Child’ is based on one of my favourite folktales, the hauntingly named `East of the Sun and West of the Moon’, which is the Norse version of Beauty and the Beast. For once, this is a story which isn’t part of a series.

Arne, a map-maker turned farmer lives with his family in 16th century Norway. Arne’s wife, Eugenia is a very superstitious woman who believes that a baby’s character is shaped by the direction the mother is facing during the birth. Eugenia has been warned by a seer that if she has a north-born, the child will be doomed to a horrible death under ice and snow. When the couple’s eighth and last child is born, they name her Ebba (East) Rose but she is really a North Child (hence the alternate titles for the book). Little Rose has the restless energy of the north-born and is always getting into mischief. Only her devoted brother Neddy knows that Rose was once saved from drowning by a white bear. Rosa turns out to have a rare talent for weaving and sewing but it isn’t enough to stop her family slipping into poverty. By the time Rose is fifteen, the family is about to be evicted from their home and her older sister, Sara, is very sick.

Then an enormous white bear comes to the house. He promises that Sara will be cured and the family will become prosperous again if Arne and Eugenia give him their youngest daughter. Arne and Neddy are horrified but Rose, who has only just learned that she is a North Child, insists on going with the bear. He carries her across the sea to his home inside a mountain, where the only servants are two strange creatures who may be Trolls. Even though the bear is rarely able to speak, Rose comes to enjoy his company, but every night a silent being shares her bed. Rose instinctively knows that she mustn’t touch, speak to or look at this strange visitor, but after she is allowed a visit home, her curiosity gets the better of her. Too late, Rose discovers that her bear was an enchanted prince  and she has just lost the chance to free him from a cruel spell. Now he is doomed to marry the Troll Queen, unless Rose can follow him to the ends of the earth and find the icy castle that lies east of the sun and west of the moon.

The combination of polar bear, compass and young girl on the cover of `North Child’ is bound to remind Fantasy readers of  Philip Pullman’s `Northern Lights’ (otherwise known as `The Golden Compass’). Pattou’s book is far less original than Pullman’s trilogy about Lyra and her ice-bear companion, but it is also gentler and more coherent. The coherence comes from following the outline of the original folktale, East of the Sun and West of the Moon, which itself echoes the ancient myth of Cupid and Psyche (see my post of 6th March 2013 on `Till We Have Faces’). Like the myth, this folktale is all about testing faith and endurance and it has a typically strong Scandinavian heroine. The prince is helpless for most of the plot and has to wait for the farmer’s daughter to rescue him. Pattou sets her version of the story in Norway, France, and Greenland and she’s brilliant at describing cold northern landscapes. She’s also an author you can trust to know all about traditional looms, Viking ships, Inuit story-telling knives, or the sense of smell of polar bears.

Pattou turns the simple characters of folktale into more complicated people. Rose has fallible parents and a diverse group of siblings while the hags who help the original heroine are transformed into a generous French widow, a drunken sea captain and an Inuit shaman. There are still supernatural elements but Pattou’s beautiful, sophisticated and cruel Trolls are very different from the stupid brutes familiar from Fantasy novels such as `The Hobbit’ or `Troll Fell’. While Rose is living with the white bear every comfort is provided by magic but during her travels, Rose learns how to do all sorts of practical things, from making three shining dresses to navigating a ship, paddling a kyak to mending reindeer-harness.  She realizes that life is more complicated without magic but also more satisfying. I was delighted to find that there is still a shirt-washing contest at the climax of the story. How often do you come across that in a Fantasy novel?

Some readers have complained that `North Child’ isn’t as intense as other Young Adult romances. One of the reasons for this is that the story is told by five different voices including Rosa’s father, Arne, and her scholarly brother Neddy. These two aren’t the most exciting of narrators but they do cover the changing fortunes of Rose’s family while she is away. More original are the voices of the white bear, who struggles to retain any memory of his human life, and the Troll Queen, who obsessively loves her captive prince. The selfish Queen is determined to make him love her back, even if she has to destroy his identity to do it. Rose may seem cool but her slow-burn feelings run deep. She literally gives her prince space and refuses to place him under any obligation to marry his rescuer. That seems like true love to me. Until next week…