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Windswept, snow-covered landscapes. Cozy, decorative huts in which a mysterious being lives. Animals that draw the line between realistic and magical. Inspirational origin stories that go back generations. Stories that take place on the northernmost edges of the earth are often referred to as “polar,” which means that they mainly take place in frozen landscapes with an atmosphere of constant winter. Even though these settings are covered in snow, they have a desert-like devastation and anyone who has ever looked over an empty, snow-covered area can tell you how isolated it feels. In order to fill the void of long winter nights in the polar region, it makes sense that fantasy stories set in these regions exist in order to find entertainment in a cold and dark time.
What is polar fantasy?
Polar Fantasy is a sub-genre of fantasy and a broad group of books suitable for all ages that can draw on existing stories or build a whole new world. Some common hallmarks of this niche are that they are in cold landscapes, often in the far north, and that the world structure in the book is often based on Scandinavian or Slavic cultures. These stories may contain elements of Northern folklore, Norse mythology, and / or animals (such as polar bears) that are unique to the region. Frequent motifs in the stories often revolve around ice magic, natural phenomena such as the northern lights or other landscape features unique to the region.
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Perhaps one of the most famous polar fantasy writers of the last few decades is Philip Pullman, whose His Dark Materials trilogy made heavy use of many of these themes. Other, more recent fantasy series have also used polar regions to build the world, as in Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse, which draws on Russian culture. These authors – and those listed below – go to the Arctic for inspiration, and offer readers the chance to immerse themselves in fantasy worlds not found in other books in the genre.
Note: There is definitely a shortage of color authors on this list, which is particularly noteworthy given the many indigenous cultures in the arctic regions.
Middle class polar fantasy books
Bears of the Ice: The Search of the Cubs by Kathryn Lasky
A noble group of polar bears has ruled the Northern Empire for ages, but when a group of power-hungry bears take control, darkness reigns over the kingdom. Set in the same world as The Guardians of Ga’Hoole, the story of Cubs One and Two, sisters who have to find their abducted mother and bring her home safely, while at the same time navigating through an arctic landscape.
Nevertell by Katharine Orton
Lina begins her life in the cold and desolate surroundings of a Soviet prison camp, miles away from civilization and cut off from the outside world. On the run with her friend Bogdan, she finds out that behind the walls of the camp there is an icy, magical landscape full of direwolves and an evil sorceress. This book takes the harsh winter climate of the former Soviet Union as a backdrop and mixes art animals and magic for a unique fantasy.
The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell
This book is a combination of fairy tale and survival story. In the arctic regions of Russia, Feo grew up surrounded by domesticated wolves that her mother raised as wild wolves, and Feo himself hopes to become one too. But not everyone in their community endorses the plan to run the wolves, and Feo’s mother is captured. Feo only ventures into the dangerous forest with the wolves as companions and has to fight to survive and reunite her family.
The Polar Bear Explorer’s Club by Alex Bell
In the first book of a trilogy, Stella Starflake Pearl and her three fellow explorers travel through a frozen land of snow queens, unicorns and man-eating cabbages to see the sights of Iceland. However, their journey takes a turn for the dangerous when the young adventurers are separated from the group and have to survive the frozen wilderness alone.
Nordkind by Edith Pattou
Previously published under the title East, this is Pattou’s retelling of the classic Norwegian fairy tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon”. In this fantasy Rose, a child from the north, travels with a bear to an empty castle, where a mysterious stranger appears to her night after night. Determined to find out who they are, Rose sets off in search of the mysterious stranger and her own lost heart through the Norwegian countryside.
Young adult polar fantasy books
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Another story takes place deep in the Russian wilderness, this time based on Russian folklore. Vasilisa and her siblings gathered by the fire and heard their nurse’s stories about Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon. To keep frost at bay, households must send offerings to the spirits that protect their homes and villages. But when Vasilisa’s father brings a new, pious woman home from Moscow, she forbids the children to follow the “old ways” of protecting against demons and sets out to redesign the family and their village in their faith. Without their usual rituals, dark forces sneak in from the forest and threaten the villagers, and Vasilisa has to resort to long-buried gifts to save them.
A shower of snow and sky by Lisa Lueddecke
The islanders of Skane know that they have to look to the sky, because that’s where the goddess speaks her moods. Seventeen years ago the sky turned red with warning when Osa was born and a plague was caused. When she sees the sky turning red again, Osa must figure out how to save the island before more lives are lost.
Winterwood by Shea Ernshaw
People have always feared what lies in the forest, and the story of the Walker women in Ernshaw’s book is no exception. Nora Walker knows that, like her mother and grandmother before her, she has a special relationship with the forests and the magic they contain. One day she ventures into the woods and meets Oliver Huntsman, who had disappeared from the nearby camp for Wayward Boys in the middle of a snow storm weeks earlier. Not only does Oliver live miraculously, but he also claims he has no memory of his time in the woods. Nora senses a change caused by his presence and must use her gifts to find out what secrets Oliver is hiding.
Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer
Six months ago, Echo Alkaev’s father traveled to the city and then disappeared. Therefore, she is shocked to find him half frozen in the winter forest, guarded by a wolf who refuses to leave his side. The wolf gives Echo a choice: Live with him in a castle for a year and he will see that her father makes it home safely. In the castle, Echo finds a library of books that have become mirrors and a young man named Hal who is trapped in its pages. Can she solve the mystery of the wolf’s attachment before Hal disappears forever?
The Winter Duke by Claire Eliza Bartlett
In an icy castle on a frozen lake, Ekata prepares to finally flee her murderous family after her brother takes his position as duke. Just as she is about to run away, her parents and 12 siblings fall into sleeping sickness. As the only member of the family still awake, Ekata receives the duchy, her brother’s promised bride, and responsibility for the family’s magical inheritance. Combining polar fantasy, political intrigue and mystery, this is a fast-paced ride through an icy world.
Adult polar fantasy books
Eowyn Ivey’s Snow Child
This 1920s Alaskan Pulitzer Prize nomination revolves around the homestead of Jack and Mabel who make a living in the brutal landscape. In a rare moment of fun, they build a child out of snow in the forest, only to find that he’s gone the next day, replaced by looks of a young girl through the trees. They find that the girl’s name is Faina, that she hunts with a red fox as a companion, and that she can somehow survive on her own in the Alaskan wilderness. When Jack and Mabel love Faina as their own, they also discover that she holds secrets that will transform them all.
The wolf in the whale by Jordanna Max Brodsky
1000 AD, an Inuit shaman and a Viking warrior become allies in the battle between their peoples and their gods. Omat, born into a family that relied on the spirits of land, sky and sea, was cut off from the gods and starved to death. In a desperate attempt to save her family, she ventures out and meets a Viking warrior, but the clash between her two cultures will spark a war that threatens both the earthly and heavenly realms.
The Scream of Icemark by Stuart Hill
The Kingdom of Icemark is in danger. Thirrin Freer Lindenshield, a young princess, must form an alliance of vampires, werewolves and warlocks to save her kingdom from invasion in this first book in the Icemark Chronicles.
Hopefully some of these cool stories can give you an escape to a magical world this winter. Do you need more Polar Reads? Check out these ten books on the Arctic.
Whether your reading niche is polar fantasy books or something entirely different, the Bibliologists at Tailored Book Recommendations, AKA TBR, have something for you! Let them choose your next reading or printing subscriptions!