This book took me way longer to read than expected. As a sort of retelling of The Snow Queen (the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen) and a Hugo and Nebula Award winner, I thought this would be just my jam. And it was enjoyable to some degree but it just never really grabbed me. Which is probably why it took me two months to finish the thing…
THE SNOW QUEEN
by Joan D. Vinge
Published by: Tor, 1980
Ebook: 495 pages
Series: The Snow Queen Cycle #1
My rating: 6,5/10
First line: Here on Tiamat, where there is more water than land, the sharp edge between ocean and sky is blurred; the two merge into one.
The imperious Winter colonists have ruled the planet Tiamat for 150 years, deriving wealth from the slaughter of the sea mers. But soon the galactic stargate will close, isolating Tiamat, and the 150-year reign of the Summer primitives will begin. Their only chance at surviving the change is if Arienrhod, the ageless, corrupt Snow Queen, can destroy destiny with an act of genocide. Arienrhod is not without competition as Moon, a young Summer-tribe sibyl, and the nemesis of the Snow Queen, battles to break a conspiracy that spans space. Interstellar politics, a millennia-long secret conspiracy, and a civilization whose hidden machineries might still control the fate of worlds all form the background to this spectacular hard science fiction novel from Joan D. Vinge.
I’ll start this review with my very first impressions and those didn’t happen in chapter one, but rather with the author’s note. Normally, I find forewords interesting as they give some background info about how a book came to be or what inspired it. Joan D. Vinge was the first author ever that I slightly disliked after reading the foreword. I had never read anything else by her, I hadn’t read a ton of reviews of her books, I like to think that I approached this novel quite neutrally, or leaning towards positive. After I finished reading the introduction however, I felt like I’d just read a list of pretexts as to why the author didn’t publish for a while or why she published things that others may have disliked… Again, I knew nothing about her or her work and writers can publish or not publish whatever the hell they like, if you ask me, but reading this author justifying herself felt rather petty to me. This was not the best start for reading my first Vinge novel.
But when I got to the actual story, I quickly forgot all about the author and simply basked in the very interesting world she has created. On the planet Tiamat, people are divided into Summers and Winters. Winters are more tech-loving, logical people while Summers hold to spiritual traditions and felt like a more earth-bound people. The divide between technology and a more agricultural life was tangible from the very beginning of the novel, but the story holds much more world building in store. The Hegemony needs Tiamat because of a certain ressource that can grant you prolonged (maybe even eternal?) youth but it also needs Tiamat to stay technologically backwards enough that they don’t gain power over the Hegemony. It’s a super interesting concept that asks questions of colonialsm, “advanced” versus “backwards” planets and the value of human and animal lives compared to personal gain.
On that world, Moon and Sparks have grown up as Summer children and eventually young lovers. They both hope to become sibyls – a sort of Summer prophet who is said to have a connection to the Lady and be able to answer all questions truthfully. When only Moon is chosen as a sibyl, Sparks goes to the Winter city of Carbuncle, where the Queen rules. I really enjoyed his initial culture shock. Not only does his gullibility send him into dangerous situations right away but we also learned more about how different the worlds of Summer and Winter really were. And we see through Sparks’ eyes just how powerful and enticing the Queen can be. A chain of events sends Moon on an adventure of her own, but I want to say as little about the plot as possible to avoid spoilers.
There were several things I really enjoyed about this book. Some side characters grew on me quietly, others I disliked, but most of them felt quite fleshed out and three-dimensional. My favorites were probably the police offices – the Blues – Jerusha and Gundhalinu. In alternating chapters we follow Jerusha, Moon, Sparks, the Queen herself, and a handful of other side characters. Each of them brings their own point of view to the mix and lets us experience the truly amazing world through different eyes. The world practially built itself that way and I couldn’t get enough of it.
The other thing I liked, although it took a while to get going, was how this is a retelling of The Snow Queen. It’s not the most straight-forward retelling but I kept stumbling across elements of the original fairy tale again and again, and every time I made a connection I was happy. Sparks being drawn in by the Queen Arienrhod and turning more and more into a creature of ice, Moon undertaking a journey in order to save her boyfriend, the people she meets on the way, it’s all there.
The reason this book took me a ridiculous amount of time to read, however, was the writing style. This was one of those books that was fun enough as long as I was reading but whenever I put it down, I had no desire whatsoever to pick it up again. So I read other books in between. And then some more books. And every time I saw the cover of this one, I felt slightly guilty that I still hadn’t finished it, so I’d pick it back up again and start reading and wonder what my problem was. It was fine, why didn’t I want to know what happened next? I still can’t answer that question properly but I suspect that old timey writing style and the way some things just take ages to move along may have had to do with it. It is a well-written book but the style didn’t really grab me. It felt a bit outdated (even though I usually don’t mind that) and although I appreciated the characters, I never built an emotional attachment to them – the one exception being Gundhalinu at the end of the story. That guy really grew on me and I wanted his story to have a happy end so badly.
All things considered, I did like this book and I loved the world building, but it’s not a book I’ll remember super fondly. I would like to read the sequel simply because I can’t get enough of the world Vinge has created and I want to learn more about it, but knowing myself, it’s probably going to be a few years before I build up the motivation to dig into that.
MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good