Hazel has been best friends with Jack since she was six years old. Adopted by parents now divorced and of a different race than most of her classmates, as well as prone to daydreaming, Hazel just doesn't fit in, and Jack is really her only friend. However, after an argument, Jack gets a piece of glass stuck in his eye and suddenly stops talking to Hazel. When he runs away into the woods with a snow witch, Hazel goes in to rescue him, and finds herself in a strange world where she is tempted at every turn to leave her quest behind her. Whatever the case, both children will be changed by the time the quest is at an end.
This was a surprisingly complex and emotional book. The hints of greater magical happenings are just that--hints--while Hazel’s quest is of utmost importance. Hazel is extremely sympathetic but also flawed, and both are intertwined. We sympathize with Hazel because she has so many of our own failings: selfishness, hardheadedness, and resistance to change. Ursu also likes playing with fairy tale tropes (and this as well as the dangerous world of the forest have a very Gaiman-like flavor to them). She introduces a fantastic, quirky old mentor-who has little to do with the story, except inspiring Hazel with his stories. The antagonist is another interesting inversion. I will not give everything away, but the main conflict is inner, not outer.
In the end, both children really are changed, because they begin to mature. Both have major problems in their lives, and both realize they cannot run away or hide from them. They must face them as best they can. This is a wonderful, bittersweet fairy tale.