Recent Reading: The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman


Okay, I would rate ICE CREAM STAR as a five out of five. But I rate lots of books five out of five, because for me a five-point rating system compresses the top and bottom books.

Out of ten, I would rate ICE CREAM STAR a nine out of ten, because there is going to be a direct sequel. Without a direct sequel, I would rate it an eight out of ten, because the ending is definitely extremely abrupt and chopped-off. I am knocking a point off for that even with the sequel.


Other criticisms: The official title is unnecessarily long and cumbersome. “Ice Cream Star” would have been perfectly appropriate. “In the Country of Ice Cream Star” adds pointless words. Other than that trivial point . . . uh . . . I can’t think of a lot of points to criticize. Oh, here’s one: Ice Cream Star is a bit too good to be true. She’s beautiful, courageous, loyal, intelligent, compassionate, a friend to every stray puppy, etc. Did I mention beautiful? All the important guys who aren’t related to her are in love with her.

What we’re seeing here is that Newman was specifically writing in the heroic tradition, and so she made Ice Cream Star into a heroic hero. Not to be redundant, but you know what I mean: larger than life, better than life — you know: heroic. The fact is, I like heroic larger-than-life heroes. Also, Newman is good enough to pull this off.

Hey, did I mention that the ending is chopped off? Publishers: please please PLEASE indicate somewhere on the book that it is part of a series. This first-book-but-we’re-not-telling strategy is NOT a good thing for readers and is a decidedly bad thing for authors. Cut it out. JUST STOP.

Well, unfortunately, none of us can actually make publishers quit it. Moving on, moving on.

Taken as the first book of a series, ICE CREAM STAR is a spectacular work. The language — Ice Cream’s language — is as different from modern standard English as you’d see in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Yet it feels organic and real. Lyrical, even. “All madden as I come along, is pointing fingers, grinning strange, and we walk through their skree that swell against the buildings’ rocky flanks. On the street be scattern flowers, whitish petals shivering and drifting in the wind. My ankles feel like angry water, but I walk correct. Concentrate upon the cutting bother of the heely shoes, and go with feary upright step, longing that I been a rifle child, ain’t got this pinching dress and freezing arms and death and death.”

Read all 600 pages of this book and you would be able to get by in this dialect. It gets into your head. Or it least, it did mine.

Okay, what you should know about this book before you pick it up:

It’s not a dystopia. There is no single horrible repressive government that is oppressing the people. It is postapocalyptic, and the US suffered more of an apocalypse than various other countries. You already know, I expect, that in any country that doesn’t have the cure for the posies (a form of cancer, evidently), everyone dies at around 20 years of age. Obviously this had a whole lot of really terrible effects. The world of Ice Cream Star is brutal. Brutal.

There are a lot of horrible repressive governments oppressing different segments of the population, I should add.

Ice Cream’s own people, the Sengels, really an extended family, are okay. The Lowells, pretty much a clan, are fine. The Christings are . . . pretty much okay, I suppose.

The Armies are horrible.

The Marianos are horrible.

The Roos are way beyond horrible.


At the end of the book, most of the secondary characters (and virtually the enormous entire supporting cast) are dead or enslaved and the Roos have basically won. The very short snippet at the end suggests that There Is Still Hope, but one can hardly see how we are going to get to a decent place from where we are left. I sort of have faith that Newman has a decent ending in mind? She is, after all, writing an adventure story in the heroic tradition. But, whoa.

In an interview, Sandra Newman says, “Ice Cream’s world isn’t miserable or oppressive or bleak. It’s actually a lot of fun, and people are more free than they are in our world. Even though Ice Cream’s world is spectacularly dangerous, I kind of wish I lived there.”

To which my only possible response is: then you’re insane, because though this could be sort of true for the Sengels, it is spectacularly untrue for almost everyone else. This story shows us exactly what the world is like when civilization falls and barbarians take over. If this book doesn’t give you an intense appreciation for living in a modern first-world country, nothing will.

Despite its brutality and horror, the book is brilliantly written and even, I would say, fundamentally positive — because of Ice Cream Star, who remains heroic through everything and does not give up; and also because of a powerful underlying theme of redemption that runs through the whole book.

Would I recommend this book to others? Yes. It is breathtakingly written and not wholly tragic.

Will I nominate it for awards next year? Yes. It is an ambitious work that, I think, almost entirely succeeds at what it is trying to do.

Will I read this book again myself? Maybe. I certainly won’t give it away just yet — though I may loan it out.

Will I read the sequel? Definitely. Especially if I see spoilers that make it clear that the ending of the sequel leaves the world in a better place than it is at the beginning. Which would not be hard.

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