Book Review: The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge

Snow Queen

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by Mark Aragona

I have mixed feelings about “The Snow Queen”. On one hand, it offers a mélange of fantastic science fiction ideas. On the other hand, the love story holds very few surprises especially if you’ve read the original Hans Christian Anderson fairytale that Joan D. Vinge based her novel on.

Vinge sets her tale in a carefully crafted universe. The planet Tiamat is located on a binary star system circling a massive black hole, which serves as a portal to other planets in the Galactic Hegemony. Tiamat follows a unique cultural cycle: every 150 years, the planet is close enough to the black hole to facilitate interstellar travel and trade. During this point, the technologically-inclined Winter folk hold sway over the planet and the Snow Queen rules over all. After this period, the Tiamat moves away from the gate and the planet is isolated for 150 years. A sea change also occurs: the former queen is deposed and the tradition-based Summer people become prevalent, led by their own Summer Queen.

And so it was for several centuries, until the latest Snow Queen, Arienrhod, devises a master plan: in order to prevent Tiamat from backsliding into obscurity, she covertly implants several Summer women with her own clones in embryonic stage, hoping to create her own successor when the Summers come to rule.

Only one clone, Moon, grows into adulthood. She and her lover Sparks both vow to become sibyls, an order of mystics that seem to have access a vast store of information. Unfortunately, only Moon passes the test, and an embittered Sparks leaves her for the capital city of Carbuncle. There, drawn by the Snow Queen’s resemblance to his beloved Moon, he winds up in Arienrhod’s company and eventually her bed.

In an attempt to get him back, Moon follows him to Carbuncle, but circumstances force her to leave the planet and she winds up on the other side of the interstellar wormhole. The rest of the story deals with her desperate attempt to return to Tiamat, rescue her lover, and confront both her clone and her own destiny.

Throughout all this, Vinge fills her tapestry with various imaginative ideas. Subplots include the mers, sentient sea-dwellers that the Winters are hunting to extinction for their life-prolonging blood. Intricately linked with the mers are the sibyls, whose particular power is like the intergalactic version of Google: asked a question, they will go into a trance and telepathically access some vast storage of information and answer accurately. For good measure, there’s an intergalactic conspiracy that aims to preserve the status quo in Tiamat and continue the mer hunt.

The most fascinating character in the story is the titular Snow Queen herself, Arianrhod. A ruthless, manipulative, seemingly jaded queen, she finds it in herself to care about Sparks. Knowing that she must eventually be deposed, she fights her fate and the endless back-forth step of her planet’s history by cloning herself in hopes that her successor would have the spirit to preserve their people’s technological progress. Someone should have told her cloning doesn’t work that way.

The story is fast-paced and eventful, but also frustrating. One problem I had was how casual the main characters seem to be with their relationships. A love story doesn’t work very well when the lovers themselves are not adverse to changing bed-mates. Also, the Snow Queen herself is supposed to be the most interesting character, but she isn’t given much to do, and it’s left to Moon to push the plot forward. Since most readers already know how the general story will turn out, there’s not a lot to push, leaving “The Snow Queen” to be an interesting but unmemorable diversion.