The Snow Queen

Monday, May 4, 2015


The Snow Queen
Joan D. Vinge, 1980

Hugo Winner - 1981

Premise: Moon is a Summer, brought up among the clans of fishers and farmers who live along the warm seas of Tiamat. Arienrhod is the Snow Queen, leader of the Winters, who live in the technologically-advanced city of Carbuncle. The Change is coming, when by tradition the Summers will take over from Winters for 150 years. Both women want what is best for their people and their planet, but the struggle between them could save or destroy their world.

Wow. This book took me a while to read, but it was worth it. My copy is only 462 pages, but it felt much longer. The pace was slow, like the unfolding of a flower.

I really liked the tension between the science-fiction elements and the mythic elements. From the very start the book walks this interesting line. In the few pages of the prologue, the reader is introduced to the city of Carbuncle during the Festival, a masquerade that felt medieval to me in the descriptions of its significance and hedonism, and then the story turns immediately to the subject of offworlders and cloning techniques. The planet of Tiamat is eternally at a tipping point between superstition and technology because of its unique place in an interstellar community.

This book does a great job providing science-ish explanations for fantastic or seemingly magical elements without robbing them of their narrative power. There is a sort of mystic order among the Summers: sibyls, who can answer any question and have a series of taboos around them. The secret of the sibyls is what much of the plot hinges on, and I found the resolution both satisfying and intriguing.

I also really enjoyed the multifaceted nature of the narrative. All the characters were extremely well-rounded. They all had perfectly good reasons, from their perspective, for their actions. Arienrhod is the most obvious villain of the piece, but despite being corrupt and vicious, she is also shown to be vulnerable and desperate, fueling much of her cruelty. Jerusha Palathion, a local official of the interstellar authority, is an even more complicated example. She’s trying to do her job, and work towards justice, but that gets more and more complicated as she goes. Likewise, even the most good-hearted characters make choices that they question later.

I was left selfishly wishing for more resolution to the plot, but the bittersweet uncertainty of the ending follows perfectly from the story and the characters.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

List of Hugo Award Winners

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