The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge

I here present my first non-positive review, which is a shame because I was looking forward to a good, earlier science fiction book (if 1981 is old enough to count as earlier). It was a case of where I could see how all the different pieces were supposed to come together and create a cohesive whole, but the execution didn’t work out quite so well.

The book is admirably impressive in scope and alternates between the viewpoints of multiple different characters and juggles the interests of multiple factions of power. The story largely takes place in the world of Tiamet where two different groups of people live, the tech-loving Winters and the rural, hunter-gathering Summers. The technologically sophisticated offworlders of the interplanetary Hegemony that controls Tiamet’s economic and technology level are about to leave and take all of their tech with them, leaving Tiamet to revert to a pre-tech existence. The Winters currently rule over Tiamet, but once the Hegemony leaves, the Summers will replace them. The ruthless Queen Arienrhod, a Winter, will do whatever it takes to prevent that future from occurring, and has created a clone of herself that will assume the throne after her reign ends in order to prevent Tiamet’s backward slide. Her clone, Moon Dawntreader Summer, grows up to be a sibyl, and then journeys to find her cousin Sparks whom she loves and feels like she has let down. Along the way, she discovers what sibyls really are and what their capabilities are, and so realizes she has a destiny on Tiamet she never realized she had, and works to free Tiamet from Arienrhod’s obsessive desire to retain power

This is an extremely simplified plot summary, and included in the book are the viewpoints of Arienrhod, Moon, her cousin and lover Sparks, police inspector Jerusha, her partner Gundhalinu, and a dock worker named Tor. Each viewpoint is distinct and fleshed out, and the majority are enjoyable to read about. However, the least enjoyable is that of Moon’s, which is unfortunate, as it is on her shoulders that the story largely rests upon. She kept coming across as extremely young, and constantly blamed herself for everything that went wrong, which was extremely annoying. Furthermore, she has practically no flaw and everyone loves her. Everyone. In short, she was boring to read about.

I think the main thing that bugs me about the story is that a particular plot point revolves around the fact that Moon is Arienrhod’s clone, and therefore they are “supposedly” the same person because they have the same mind. When Sparks believe he’s lost Moon forever, Arienrhod has no problem convincing Sparks that Moon is “technically” her, so it’s ok for Sparks to love her instead. That is not how cloning works, and even though other characters later on said the same exact thing, I didn’t like how that argument was what propelled the story along and was part of what corrupted Sparks and turned him into the bitter, ruthless advisor to the Queen. It made even less sense that once Moon came back, Sparks almost immediately reverted back into his old self and remembered that oh yeah, it was Moon and not Arienrhod he loved.

Also, the writing kept throwing me off for reasons I can’t clearly identify. The book is 469 pages long and has small print, but it constantly felt like I was missing something, like certain sequences would start or end too quickly. There were multiple plots, and while they all managed to coincide more or less by the end, the timing in which it happened felt messy. Also, I thought the climax occurred too quickly, the resolution is almost completely glossed over, and the rest of the ending was protracted unnecessarily.

I did really like Jerusha because of her dedication to her job as a police officer and constant struggle to do her job and have the police be a source of good when Arienrhod herself is doing everything she can to make sure she fails. She was a realistic character with good intentions, but up against numerous obstacles determined to wear her down and break her. Arienrhod, Sparks, and Gundhalinu were also enjoyable to read because of their numerous flaws and the assaults they suffered to their pre-existing conception of the universe. In short, I liked reading the viewpoints of anyone that wasn’t Moon. In books, human flaws are actually good things!

The time in which the story takes place is one in which there used to be a huge Empire with vast amounts of technology. When the Empire collapsed, a lot of it was lost, and the Hegemony has reclaimed a good portion of it, but their power is limited because the worlds under their influence are separated by black holes that close up for certain periods of time. Some of the story did take place on Karemough, the center of the Hegemony, but I felt like the history of the Hegemony and the different worlds under its influence were skimmed over. For example, why exactly do the Summers and Winters on Tiamet have to alternate leadership? Why are Winters, seemingly by definition, attracted to tech and the Summers aren’t? How Tiamet society and various cultures worked was not explained satisfactorily enough for me. Also, I disliked how Joan D. Vinge tried to exemplify cultural differences between people by slightly changing the syntax of Sandhi, the language of the Hegemony. It felt silly.

This book is the first in a short series, so I might read the rest, because there were characters I enjoyed, it’s that the story didn’t coalesce into a solid whole. This book won the Hugo Award in 1981, so obviously a number of people really liked it. I do feel that if I had read this at a different age, maybe when I was fourteen and really into Anne McCaffrey, that I would have gotten more out of it than I did. Ah well.

Sidenote: After lurking on a number of sf blogs over the past three years, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to cover art, and this particular piece is beautiful. I love the details of the crown and the blue background.

Published in: on June 3, 2011 at 5:48 PM  Leave a Comment  

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