As far back as he can remember, Kai’s life has been filled with nightmares, darkness, and abuse, so when he finds himself alone and bleeding to death in the middle of a snowstorm after being attacked by muggers, he figures this is par for the course. However, Kai’s perpetual bad fortunes seem to take a turn for the better when he’s not only rescued, but healed by a handsome stranger who disappears into the swirling snow as mysteriously as he appears. When the stranger, who calls himself Avery, reappears, Kai quickly finds himself captivated by Avery’s attention and gifts to the exclusion of everything else, including his best friend, Tristan.
Tristan knows that something is wrong with Kai’s relationship and new boyfriend (and it’s not just jealousy talking). Using the gift he’s kept hidden from Kai, Tristan learns Kai is being bound by fae magic. Feeling powerless and hopeless as Kai becomes meaner and more distant, Tristan resigns himself to being unable to help Kai, until Kai disappears. Unwilling to let Kai go forever without trying everything in his power to reach him, Tristan embarks on a journey to face his greatest fear—that Kai will turn his back on Tristan’s love.
I love a good fairy tale re-telling, especially the darker ones, as they often align more with the original’s decidedly more gruesome and menacing roots. Knowing R. Phoenix’s stories tend to thrive on darkness and menace, I was expecting a lot from Shards of Ice, the ninth story in the Grim and Sinister Delights collection, based on “The Snow Queen.” Possibly, my expectations were just too high because the story, to me, is just ok and actually quite tame by Phoenix’s standards. In my opinion, the story suffers in two major areas: character and relationship development, and pacing.
Tristan and Kai have been friends for 6 years, and share an apartment as college seniors. I am told of their long history and affection for one another, but their interactions on page don’t fully establish this deep bond/connection they are supposed to have. One cause of this is the simple fact that Tristan and Kai’s normal relationship is given short shrift; there is little time to invest in their dynamic before Avery’s influence over Kai occurs. Additionally, although the extent of Tristan’s love, devotion, and high regard for Kai is conveyed within those first two chapters, the same cannot be said for Kai. While I am told that Kai cares for Tristan and is protective of and attracted to him, I didn’t get much chance to see it, and what is there feels a bit hollow. His protectiveness of Tristan is in that somewhat condescending, patriarchal vein, which centers on protecting Tristan’s “innocence.” Kai won’t share his nightmares or the extent of the mugging with Tristan because Kai needs to be the strong one and keep Tristan pure. The impression of a one-sided/lacking connection is furthered by how Kai thinks about Tristan. A few gems are:
“It wasn’t like Tristan was a stalker, exactly, but he was clingy, needy, desperate to know [Kai] was safe at all times.”
“All right, so Tristan had sort of latched onto him like a barnacle, but he was a loveable barnacle, and Kai needed that sort of devotion—and light—in his life”
“He was lonely, and Tristan was nearby, and all he had to do was confess his feelings.”
Given that these are the kinds of thoughts Kai has about Tristan before he becomes an asshole, and with the truncated development of their relationship baseline, it was difficult to believe in their love for each other. I felt more of a connection to and interest in Vidar and their story (a secondary character that pops up in a few pages towards the end) than the two MCs.
This is also not helped by the pacing. The first 50% of the book is Kai being s l o w l y ensnared by Avery, and hurting Tristan’s feelings, while Tristan wrings his hands and bemoans his helplessness. Tristan discovers Kai’s enchantments early in Avery and Kai’s relationship and thinks he should talk to his parents about how to help Kai…then apparently waits a couple weeks? And then presents the dilemma in such a poor way that he begins to doubt himself? Then does nothing much except watch Avery’s entanglement grow until it is too late. The last half of the story is focused on Kai’s time in the Snow Queen’s Ice Prince’s castle and Tristan’s endeavors to attempt a rescue, leading to a somewhat flat and rushed creation of the final couple. The book is only 190 pages, but it feels longer; it could have used some of the time the narrative spends rehashing Kai’s cruelty and decline and introducing foreshadowing “that signaled the end of the world” (something that has no payoff) to instead firmly establishing the MCs’ relationship or been shorter all together.
Shards of Ice isn’t a bad book. Avery, the fae Ice Prince, is seductive and chilling. I like Tristan’s parents and some of the additional magical aspects and backstory that Phoenix incorporates into the story, and the epilogue is spot on. Unfortunately, most of the elements I found interesting aren’t developed as well as they could have been, while others felt redundant. Moreover, for me, the best retellings add dimensions to the characters that make them feel more dynamic and fleshed out than they usually are in their original stories and the besotted Tristan and broody Kai just didn’t do much for me; your mileage may vary.