Vonda N. McIntyre – Dreamsnake

Catching up with the winners (and finalists) of the Hugo Awards is a long-term project of mine. It’s been going mostly well, with some works that I disliked. Mostly I see the appeal, though, even if a book is not to my taste. Dreamsnake has won not only the 1979 Hugo but also the Nebula and Locus Award and so it was high up on my list of books I should really check out. It was one of the good ones. 🙂

DREAMSNAKE
by Vonda N. McIntyre

Published: Jo Fletcher Books, 1978
eBook: 288 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

Snake travels the land with her serpents, the rattlesnake Sand, the cobra Mist and the rare alien dreamsnake called Grass, whose bite can ease the fear and pain of death. But the blasted landscape of a far-future post-holocaust Earth is a dangerous place, even for such a highly regarded elite healer . . . especially when an unexpected death sends her on a desperate quest to reclaim her healing powers.

A haunting story of an extraordinary woman on a dangerous quest in a far-future post-apocalyptic world.

This is one of those books that starts as one thing and then turns into quite another. We first meet Snake when she is with a desert people with a very sick young boy. Snake’s work – and part of her character – are revealed to us through the healing of this boy. She uses her three snakes, Mist, Sand, and Grass to create a special kind of poison that will heal the boy. The dreamsnake Grass doesn’t deliver an antidote to Snake’s patients, however, but is rather there to calm them, to help them sleep, and – if the person is going to die – to ensure a serene end. Although Snake makes a friend during her stay with the desert people, she loses a snake! Without Grass, Snake isn’t a proper healer anymore so she decides to return to her people, confess the loss of her snake and hope for the best.

Dreamsnakes being incredibly rare – cloning doesn’t always yield results and breeding them just won’t work – Snake starts her journey in shame and worry. There are already too few dreamsnakes to provide every healer with one, and there are too few healers to deal with all the pain in the world. As we follow Snake on her trip, we encounter not only groups of people from vastly different backgrounds and cultures, but also get to explore this post-apocalyptic world and what has become of it.

This was such a cool book! It starts out reading almost like fantasy with Snake going through the process of making her snake produce an anti-venom to the little boy’s disease, and no mention of technology or modern living anywhere. But as soon as Snake leaves and travels from the desert to the mountains, we realize that this is not a medieval-ish setting but rather a futuristic one where alien contact has happened at least once. Because it’s the aliens who have brought, among other things, dreamsnakes.

Snake’s journey, and this book, was almost episodic but never actually felt like it. Sure, the chapters can be summed up as “where Snake meets that person” or “when Snake stays in Mountainside for a while” but she is always working towards her goal of somehow making the loss of her dreamsnake right. What she doesn’t know is that Arevin, the handsome man from the desert tribe who helped Snake with her healing treatments, is following her.
This was the first thing that impressed me in this book. Snake’s time in the desert with Arevin’s people is very short and the scene they share is even shorter. But McIntyre somehow manages to make the tension between them tangible. It doesn’t make sense but I immediately wanted these two to get together!

I was also surprised with the themes that came up in this book and how they were handled. Reminding myself that this book came out in 1978, I was happy to see diverse relationships depicted here. The sick boy from the beginning has several fathers, Snake meets a polyamorous trio on the road, and enjoys some casual sex herself.
Equally, through the lens of science fiction, the topic of euthanasia is raised. Snake states from the start that she wants to heal people, but even she knows that some diseases or wounds are too terrible to heal. And for those cases, Grass is supposed to help people die. It is never even questioned to deny a patient this treatment, which is why Snake feels so broken after losing Grass.

Until about the second third, this isn’t a particularly exciting book, plot-wise. But it is so intriguing to find out new tidbits about the world in every chapter, all organically through the plot and characters, that I was never bored. Snake is a great protagonist with a sense of responsibility, a good heart, and a strong mind. I enjoyed spending time with her, even though the mood of the book is mostly very bleak. Vonda N. McIntyre ramps up the excitement levels towards the end and delivers a pretty thrilling final “episode” that manages to bring everything together beautifully. I may have a ton of unanswered questions about this world and its history but those things aren’t important for this story to make sense and so they aren’t explained.

In the end, this is one of the books where I can’t really put my finger on why I liked it so much, I just did. The setting, characters, story, and writing all worked for me. It may be a quieter science fiction book but it gave me so much food for thought that I prefer it to an action-packed but ultimately empty sci-fi romp. Easily one of my higher up Hugo winner recommendations.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

#Mythothon 4 – Week One

This readathon was just what I needed to get me back on track. The year 2021 hasn’t been going too well – work is insanely busy and stressful, I still haven’t been vaccinated, we are currently in another mini-lockdown, and after over a year of this pandemic, I have to admit it’s starting to get to me psychologically, even though I’ve been super lucky (still got my job, can work easily from home, etc.). Anyway, my reading was going very slowly and I definitely needed a pick-me-up and something to motivate me and remind me why I love reading. Enter Mythothon!

How the week went

The beginning of the month is always stressful at work. Add to that the funeral my partner and I had to attend on April 1st and you’ve got a pretty bad start to the month. But it did give us a chance to visit some family whom we hadn’t seen since Christmas and it meant two train rides with plenty of time for reading. It’s a very small consolation but I’m trying to focus on the positives.

I wasn’t really sure which book to start with, but as I had just finished an audiobook and needed a new one and my first and second choices weren’t available (Elatsoe and Into the Heartless Wood), I went with Legendborn by Tracy Deonn (my review goes up on Monday). It’s read by Joniece Abbott-Pratt, who also read Raybearer which I ADORED, so the decision was quickly made. Abbott-Pratt does a fantastic job and sounds very different than she did in Raybearer (which is as it should be). The story itself is also engaging and fun and does a really god job of showing the casual, every-day racism that Black people are confronted with. The focus of the book is protagonist Bree entering into a secret society with the descendents of King Arthur and his Knights. There’s magic and romance, danger and prophecy, and although I’m not super hooked on the King Arthur references (the magic could be based on literally anything else), I like how Deonn handled the themes of loss and grief!

My second book was a re-read but my first time was so long ago that I didn’t remember much of the plot anyway. Tamora Pierce’s Alanna: The First Adventure was just as much fun as I had hoped. A very quick, child-friendly read that may be simple and straightforward but also did some unexpected things for a book published in 1983. For example, it was the first fantasy book I ever read – especially one written for a younger audience – that acknowledged and dealt with girls having a period. The girl disguised as a boy trope is used often and I enjoy it a lot. But I’ve never come across one that shows us how the disguised girl deals with her monthly cycle while pretending to be a boy. So bonus points for that!
Even though I definitely had some issues with the storytelling – things happen soooo fast! – and looked at other aspects through a different lens – like what if a trans kid read this book? – I had fun reading it and I liked the boost it gave me for this readathon.

And because it was so easy and quick to read, I jumped right into the next book in the series, In the Hand of the Goddess. This was another super fast read and although I had fun with it, my inner critic started grumbling more and more. A lot of time passes in this short novel but it never really felt like it. Just being told that something happens a year later doesn’t convey the passage of time when everything happens so fast. There’s a war and then, ten pages later, it’s already over. It’s winter but suddenly, spring has passed again. Alanna grows older and romance is suddenly a thing. The main story arc of Alanna’s training to become a knight is finished, however, and I’m curious to see what adventures she will have in the two remaining books. So despite its flaws, I find these books enjoyable and perfect to get you out of a reading slump. I will continue the series and maybe even finish it during this readathon.

I’m just getting all the quick and easy reads out of the way so I have more time for the chunky ones later in the month. “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” is a short story by P. Djèlí Clark that I found fun but not great. I really enjoyed his novella The Haunting of Tram Car 051 which is technically set after this story in an alternate Cairo where djinn live among humans and people have evolved into a gear-punky society that’s way ahead of the West. Both of these tales are set before Clark’s upcoming novel A Master of Djinn which I’m looking forward to soooo much. So you see, I just had to catch up on the Fatma el-Sha’arawi series. The story was too short to make me really get into the world building or Fatma’s character but it gave me a taste of what’s to come and I look forward to exploring this alternate Cairo more.

I also finished a non-readathon book this week which turned out to be really good. It was one of my five star predictions for the year, I’ve been meaning to read it forever and I’m glad I finally did. Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre (review to come next week) has won both the Hugo and the Nebula Award, it shows up on a lot of Best SFF lists, and it’s pretty short. So I really don’t know why it took me so long to pick it up. But this post-apocalyptic book about a wandering healer and her snakes had a lot going for it. A world that slowly reveals itself to the reader – at first it feels almost like fantasy, then turns more and more into sci-fi – a strong protagonist, LGBTQIA+ themes (this was published in 1978 so I was positively surprised), and a lot of emotional impact for a book that’s so short.
Despite it’s slightly episodic nature, I suspect this is a book that will stay in my mind, make me think, and that I’ll probably grow fonder of over time.

Books finished:

Currently reading:

  • Maria V. Snyder – Poison Study (Sir Tristan)
  • A. G. Slatter – All the Murmuring Bones (Nimue Team Read)

Other activities

I started watching Merlin the TV show because it’s on Netflix and I’ve never seen it and, well, it goes with the readathon. I’m only a few episodes in and while I don’t find it particularly original yet, nor well done in terms of production value, I do like the characters and the actors playing Merlin, Arthur, and Gwen. Also, Giles from Buffy is King Uther Pendragon and I keep expecting him to go to the library and look up a demon. 🙂

Plans for next week

I guess I’ll just go ahead and finish the Song of the Lioness, right? I’m also very much looking forward to the other books on my Mythothon TBR but as the Hugo Award finalists will be announced on Tuesday, I guess I’ll be trying to make a lot of the nominees fit the readathon prompts so I can get a head start on reading them. On the other hand, WorldCon has been moved to December this year, so there’s really no stress and plenty of time to read the finalists.

I’m approaching next week in a pretty relaxed way and I’ll pick up the books I’m most in the mood for.

Go Team Nimue!