I'm a well read grad student who's bluntly honest about all things, although I try to be most honest about myself.
The fantasy elements are as fascinating and compelling as the story of a family who loses their mother, Beth, during childbirth. Adara, Beth's youngest daughter, is cold, and distant, and born during winter. The titular ice dragon comes each winter for Beth, getting closer and closer to her even as Adara withdraws more from the world, and especially her family.
She doesn't smile or cry, and the only thing that brings her joy is her ice dragon. Even when the 'why' of her coldness is revealed - a small secret, but one that is traumatic to her - she has been this way. Perhaps she's always sensed the lack of her mother, and how her birth ushered in Beth's death. (This isn't spelled out, but it doesn't have to be; it doesn't really matter in the end. The trauma of overhearing why her father treats her differently seems vastly more important to how she grows up this way, to be honest, and that seems to be a tipping point: when she touches and starts riding the ice dragon.)
I don't believe this is set on Earth, but rather in a medieval type setting on a world quite similar to Earth. It's not just the dragons, but the fact that Adara's hometown is never really placed in anything other than incredibly vague terms. It gives the town a sense of otherworldliness when combined with the fantastical elements.
Regardless, it seems a rather typical lifestyle for a medieval farmer, and I like how grounded in reality this world is without tying it down to our world or another. It's beautiful, full of both pain and hope. Although I kinda wanted the ending to be different at the beginning and throughout the end, in retrospect this was the perfect ending.
And just a final note about the art. First of all, I got this book for, I think, a dollar at Readercon this year, and it's a first edition with the poster by Royo on the back of the dust jacket. Secondly see the art on the cover? That's the same artist who does the illustrations inside. (It's all pencil work/ink work in a blue tone, with a dark blue typeface to match, and all the illustrations are some of the most lush, gorgeous pencil/ink work I've ever seen. Royo has been a favorite artist of mine for a while, and I think anyone who reads this book will understand why.)
I'm glad I finally got around to this book. It's absolutely lovely, with sparse, but gorgeous prose, and it only took about an hour or so to read. I think I like it more than Song of Ice and Fire, in fact!