Sunday, March 31, 2013

Review: The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge

The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge
Published : The Dial Press/Quantum, 1980
Series : Book 1 of the Snow Queen Cycle
Awards Won : Hugo, Locus SF Awards
Awards Nominated : Nebula Award

The Book :

In the world of Tiamat, power changes hands every 150 years, due to the periodic opening and closing of a galactic stargate.  During the winter cycle, the Snow Queen reigns, and technophile ‘Winters’ live in a society supported by contact with people from the Hegemony, a government that spans a number of worlds.  At the end of this cycle, the Snow Queen and all the world’s technology are sacrificed as the offworlders leave through their closing stargate. Then begins the reign of the Summer Queen, and the primitive, superstitious Summers.

The current Snow Queen, Arienrhod, has no intention of relinquishing her power and watching her technological world collapse. Though she has many schemes to change the cycle, one involves her own clone, a young woman named Moon.  Raised as a Summer and in love with her cousin Sparks, Moon has her own ideas about what her life will hold.  She intends to be a sibyl, a wise woman of the Summers who can channel answers to nearly any question.  However, the fates of Moon, Sparks, and Arienrhod may not be theirs to control…” ~Allie   

 This is the first novel I’ve read by Joan D. Vinge, which makes it my 3rd novel in the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge.  The Snow Queen is from relatively early in her writing career, four years after her 1976 nomination for John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer for the novelette “Tin Soldier” (published in 1974).  The Snow Queen is the first book of the Snow Queen Cycle, but it stands alone as a novel.  I’m not sure whether or not I will continue the series, simply because the story does seem complete.

My Thoughts:

At its heart, The Snow Queen is a science-fictional retelling of the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen.  I thought it was a very interesting idea, moving the basic story of a fairy tale into an elaborate science fiction setting.  The feel of the story included kind of a clash of mysticism with science.  For one clear example, the Winters were a heavily science and technology focused people, while the Summers were more religious and had many mystical beliefs.  The cycles had both a pragmatic purpose for the Hegemony and a spiritual significance for the Tiamatans.  For another example, the purpose and identity of the sibyls had both a scientific and a more spiritual basis.  It was interesting to see how these different perspectives clashed and melded together.

The story was told through many viewpoint characters, each of which was complex and engaging.  Even though the Snow Queen Arienrhod was clearly an evil villain, she still had her own goals and justifications for her actions.  Moon and Sparks are cast in the roles of the main characters from the original fairy tale.  I felt that the story might have been a little too loyal in following the original tale, which gave Moon and Sparks a few personality characteristics that seemed a bit too exaggerated.  For instance, Moon’s innocence and purity of heart led nearly everyone she met to love her and want to help her, and Sparks was ridiculously impressionable. Other viewpoint characters I particularly enjoyed included the police inspector Jerusha PalaThion and the sketchy minor criminal Tor Starhiker.  They may have not always been directly involved with the main plot, but Jerusha’s story of being professionally sabotaged and Tor’s story of trying to make her way in the world were both engaging in their own right.  The cast of the story is enormous, even beyond the viewpoint characters.  While that may have made it a little difficult to get into initially, I ended up enjoying the wideness of the world and the many memorable people that populated it.

The pacing of the story sometimes seemed a little uneven, but I was equivalently interested in the daily politics of Jerusha’s police headquarters as I was in the fate of the Snow Queen and Tiamat.  My curiosity about the lives of each of the characters (event the minor ones) held my interest through the more mundane parts of the story.  I think that if one were singularly invested in the main story between Sparks, Moon and Arienrhod, there are parts that might seem to drag.  In that main story, there were parts of the conclusion that left me unconvinced.  Some things that are acceptable in a fairy tale seem extremely naïve and irresponsible when duplicated within more realistic interpersonal interactions.  All the same, I appreciated how all the viewpoint characters stories came together, and how each of them played a role in the final act of the tale.       

My Rating : 4/5

The Snow Queen moves the well-known Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale into a complicated science fiction setting.  With the combination of the two genres, there is also an interesting merging of atmospheres in the societies of Tiamat.  The story follows half a dozen viewpoint characters and many more interesting minor characters, in a world that seems large and clearly imagined.  For me, the stories of the more minor viewpoint characters sometimes outshone the central story of Sparks, Moon and the Snow Queen.  While I sometimes felt it was a little too loyal to the original fairy tale in terms of events and characterization, there was still plenty to enjoy in the many subplots and characters. 


  1. I loved this book so much! The mysticism was really fun and eerie. I agree that a lot of the minor characters were pretty engaging themselves and the result was such a richly textured world that was easy to fall into. It felt like it was told in color. I expected you to like it. I'm glad you did.

    1. I did really like this book, and I enjoyed reading your review of it (and Silky was great)! I actually went back and read the Andersen story after I read the novel, too (I'd vaguely knew the plot, but I'd never read it before). I really loved the detail of the world and the life breathed into it by the many characters-- I think "richly textured" and "easy to fall into" describes it pretty much perfectly :).

    2. When I went back to read the original, I was struck by how closely she followed Andersen's story while managing to create so many and such very different details. This book made me really happy.

      I liked that at first silky seemed to be insignificant and became something more in the end. Silky was just a perfect name too :D