“East of the Sun, West of the Moon” is a Scandinavian fairy tale that’s a bit like “Beauty and the Beast,” and even more like “Cupid and Psyche.” It’s full of striking imagery but has always inspired a bit of ambivalence in me — I love that the girl goes on an epic journey to rescue the guy, but I’m always a smidgen irked that she wins him by doing laundry better than her rival! In recent years, a number of authors have turned their hands to retelling the story in novel form, expanding the plot and focusing on different aspects of the tale, with varying results.
Mistress of the Wind is a new retelling by Michelle Diener, who has written several historical novels before entering fairy-tale land. It’s billed as “New Adult,” that new fiction category that focuses on protagonists of roughly college age and is often steamier than traditional Young Adult fiction. In this case, I’m not sure the New Adult classification is even necessary: Astrid’s age is never even mentioned that I can remember, and it’s not all that important; and while there’s a bit of sex in the book, it is just a bit and not all that explicit. I think either a teen or adult reader could enjoy Mistress of the Wind.
For the most part, the novel follows the fairy tale faithfully, though it expands on the politics of the world’s supernatural beings, so as to explain how Bjorn the bear-prince found himself in his predicament in the first place and what the consequences might be if he doesn’t marry the troll’s daughter. But the best and most interesting change is what Diener does with the heroine, Astrid — making her a woman of power in her own right. This removes some of the power imbalance that existed in the original tale, and Astrid’s initiation into the use of her power gives shape to the narrative during a stretch that might otherwise have bogged down in repetitive travel.
Mistress of the Wind is on the short side and is a pleasant, quick read. At the same time, for me it lacked a certain je ne sais quoi that might have made it truly sweep-me-away and memorable. I’d also have loved a bit more explanation for why the laundry thing worked, other than it just did (I’m guessing it has something to do with the wish, but it’s not really stated). And while it’s well-edited for the most part, there are a small handful of times that a too-modern word usage creeps in. I know there’s always some suspension of disbelief in fantasy — you know, logically, that none of this is happening in modern English and that the novel you’re reading is a “translation” of sorts — but it can put a hitch in the mood when, say, Bjorn reflects on how demigods have too much “baggage” to make good romantic partners. However, overall, this is a decent read and worth your time if you’re into fairy tale retellings.