I will admit, if I had picked this book up without it being submitted to SPFBO19, I would have put it down quickly. The story was interesting enough, but the writing was stilted and hard to adjust to. I'm glad I stuck with it, though, for there were some really interesting elements to the book that make it unique.
The story follows Zaaz, a ten-year-old girl growing up in an icy community similar to that of the the Inuits. She's mostly a social outcast because of her pale skin and red hair, and her mother is a witch in hiding. Zaaz finds a strange box which marks her around the eyes, and gives her special abilities; namely, the ability to be unaffected by the cold, and the ability to see magic.
In a series of unfortunate events, Zaaz and her mother must flee when a White Witch shows up, sensing Zaaz's new abilities. These witches take the magic from others by killing them, and so Zaaz and her mother run. They encounter some friendly Giants, and Zaaz helps them dispel some dangerous beetles from the trees in their forest that is killing their livelihood. Zaaz is eventually separated from her mother when an Ice Troll shows up, and Zaaz convinces him to take her as a slave in return for not eating them and letting her mother go free.
The rest of the book details her slavery, escape, and eventual reuniting with the Giants to help them fight the Ice Trolls, who are responsible for the beetle infestation under orders from the White Witches. Throughout the narrative, Zaaz learns more about magic, and coming into her powers, and surviving in a harsh world where the only reason she is surviving is because of her immunity to the cold.
As mentioned above, all in all, I enjoyed the worldbuilding. The Ice Trolls were interesting, there is a giant worm that I wish we could have seen more of, and a Ratling that was in the story much too briefly, but was a compelling character (if not a little strange. But hey, he's a RATLING). The magic system wasn't all that unique, but it fit the world nicely. And I enjoyed Zaaz's ability to actually see it at play, and not just sense it.
The characters were at first hard to sympathize with. There's a lot of info dumps through conversation, which is my least favorite way of learning new information in a story. Zaaz was mildly interesting to me, since I enjoy young protagonists, but there were some really strange things about her. First, she spoke and thought like she was much older than ten. This could be explained by the world itself, of course, but the narrative was mixed with classical phrases and modern phrases, so it pulled me out of the world a bit. When a friend of Zaaz dies, it was hard for me to connect to her response to it, since up to that point most of the info had been dumped on me without it being shown to me. Later in the book, when Zaaz is thirteen, she has a strange, sexual response to the thought of taking revenge on the Ice Trolls. This was unnecessary and strange and awkward, and once again not how one would like to see a child respond to a situation like that. It makes me wonder if the author has ever been around girls of that age. Granted, it's fantasy so there are certain creative liberties one can take as the writer. But I would have like to see some ways in which Zaaz could just be a child, and thing like a child, and act like a child. I think this could all be fixed if she had been closer to sixteen when the story started, and it end when she is around eighteen or nineteen.
The other problem I had was the plot. It's more like we get to see Zaaz reacting to her circumstances instead of a streamlined story with a typical five act structure. The end is anticlimactic, but it clearly is just the beginning book to a series. I still would have liked a more clear cut climax. As I was reading, I felt like there were too many haphazard pieces to the story. That being said, the ending notes make is seem like the author is a gamer. And I know LitRPG is all the rage right now. I know nothing about it, so maybe it's a genre thing I don't understand? Either way, for me, the worldbuilding made up for the plot issues. I really did enjoy reading this book, even though there were things that were annoying about it and pulled me out of the story (WHY do fantasy authors feel like there ALWAYS has to be a rape scene!? People. It's getting old).
Lastly, the editing. This could use a professional editor, not just developmentally, but for proofreading. The grammar and punctuation was all over the place, and with repeated words, rambling sentences, and modern vernacular, I wonder if the maybe the wrong draft was submitted? It appeared that it WAS edited from the credits given at the beginning, but maybe the author should consider having a professional do it. I think this would have helped tremendously for me to enjoy it better.
I know this sounds like a negative review, but of the elements I did enjoy, I enjoyed a lot. I do believe this story has massive potential, and with a few re-writes, could hit the right audience and go far. If you enjoy child protagonists, interesting creatures, LitRPG, and unique, icy worlds, then you probably will like this one. Kudos to the author. It's obvious he did the research, and little things added here and there make the world seem real.