Well, although this review has been quite a while in the making, I thought that I’d take a look at Joan D. Vinge’s Hugo Award-winning 1980 sci-fi novel “The Snow Queen” today 🙂 And, although I’ll probably take a break from reading/reviewing novels for a while, I’ve really been looking forward to reviewing this book 🙂
If I remember rightly, I ended up finding a second-hand copy of this book after really enjoying Vinge’s later prequel novel “Tangled Up In Blue” – which I discovered after reading the second novel in the “Snow Queen” series, “World’s End“, about a decade after I found it by chance in a charity shop. It has been a weird journey.
So, let’s take a look at “The Snow Queen”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins on the planet Tiamat. Although Tiamat is a member of a powerful interplanetary alliance called the Hegemony, it is only accesible to the rest of the Hegemony via a wormhole that opens and closes in 150 year cycles. The planet is split into two tribes – Summers and Winters – who rule depending on whether the wormhole is open or shut. When it is open, the Winters are in charge and off-world technology is temporarily available to the planet in exchange for the “water of life” – an immortality serum derived from the blood of sea-creatures called mers.
In the planet’s capital city of Carbuncle, a festival is in full swing to celebrate a visit by the Hegemony’s Prime Minister. During the celebrations, a drunken couple fall asleep in a room in the city’s palace. The planet’s ruthless Winter queen, Arienrhod, sneaks into the room with a reluctant off-world doctor she has bribed into helping her. She orders the doctor to insert an illegal clone implant into the unconscious woman.
Several years later, on an island in the Summer areas of the planet, a young woman called Moon leaves home with her beloved cousin Sparks. Unlike the technology-obsessed Winters, the Summers are a more primitive and superstitious people who live from fishing, consider mers to be sacred and worship a sea-goddess called The Lady. Part of this mystical tradition is the existence of “siblys” – people who become human search engines/encyclopaedias thanks to the sharing of blood.
Both Moon and Sparks have wanted to become sibyls since they were children and they have travelled to another island in order to begin the tests and rituals that will allow this. However, after reaching a dark cave, Sparks realises that he can’t see in the dark in the same way that Moon can. He has not passed the test and cannot become a sibyl. Despite his protests and their promise that they would become sibyls together, Moon reluctantly continues into the cave and begins her sibyl training.
Dismayed by this, Sparks eventually decides to leave Moon and seek his fortune in the bustling metropolis of Carbuncle. After having his belongings stolen by two of the locals, he begins a profitable career as a busker before being attacked in an alleyway by a gang who want to sell him into slavery. Meanwhile, two Hegemonic police officers – Jerusha PalaThion and BZ Gundhalinu – have an awkward formal meeting with Arienrhod and are returning to the station when they find Sparks being attacked. They save him and, to avoid vagrancy charges, he gives the address of a blind mask-maker called Fate who he met shortly after arriving in the city.
Fate agrees to let him help her out. Sometime later, Arienrhod visits the shop to enquire about a ceremonial mask. Sparks is stunned. Arienrhod looks just like his cousin Moon. He makes the mistake of pointing this out to her. Arienrhod suddenly becomes a lot more interested in him and insists that he works at the palace as a musician. Things improve for Sparks and he quickly rises in position and, at Arienrhod’s prompting, he sends for his cousin to visit…
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is WOW 🙂 On the back cover, there is a quote from Arthur C. Clarke that compares this novel to Frank Herbert’s “Dune” and it is a very apt comparison 🙂 If you enjoy epic fantasy-influenced science fiction, set in complex worlds filled with intrigue – where high technology and ancient traditions sit uneasily side-by-side, then you’ll enjoy this novel 🙂 Seriously, it’s an absolute crime that this novel isn’t more well-known and/or hasn’t been adapted into a film, videogame or TV series yet.
So, I should probably start by talking about the novel’s science fiction elements. Although the novel has some of the trappings of the fantasy genre (eg: monarchy, tradition etc…), it is very much a science fiction novel at heart – with every strange or futuristic thing in this novel either following scientific rules or having a scientific explanation. But, the technology itself isn’t really the main focus of this novel. This is more of a novel about the power of knowledge and technology than anything else.
The Hegemony controls Tiamat by only allowing the planet’s people to own technology during the 150 year window that the wormhole is open – remotely destroying or seizing anything vaguely high-tech before the wormhole closes. They also keep some technological knowledge and history secret from the people of Tiamat and make it difficult for them to leave the planet. Although one character tries to explain this by quoting something similar to the “Prime Directive” from Star Trek, it is very clearly shown to be a way to keep Tiamat weak and easily-exploitable. So, this is very much a novel about the interplay between technology, politics, knowledge and power. It’s sort of meta sci-fi in this way 🙂
Still, one interesting thing is how the novel’s “sibyls” are inspired by, and expand on, the idea of human computers from Frank Herbert’s “Dune”. Unlike the mentats of “Dune”, this novel’s sibyls are linked by a strange genetically-engineered network created by a long-lost ancient civilisation (that the Hegemony are trying to reconstruct). Due to the bio-tech in their blood, they are both feared and revered by everyone in the story. And, in an eerily prescient twist, they act like a human version of something like Google or Wikipedia. This might not sound that impressive now. But this is a novel from 1980!
Like novels by some modern sci-fi authors such as Becky Chambers, this is more of a novel about life in the future. Although it has a thriller-like plot, filled with intrigue and drama, it is the type of “realistic” sci-fi that just shows what ordinary life in another galaxy might be like. In other words, this novel has absolutely excellent worldbuilding 🙂
The world of Tiamat really feels like a complex, living place that is always really fascinating to visit. The best way to describe it is “Blade Runner/Star Wars meets Game Of Thrones”. If you loved the intriguing combination of high technology and ancient cities/traditions in Frank Herbert’s “Dune”, then you’ll love the world of this book too 🙂 Seriously, I cannot praise the worldbuilding here highly enough.
Not only that, this first novel in the series also gives us some tantalising glimpses of other places and societies in this series’ “universe” too. The highlight is probably a brief trip to the planet Kharemough, which creates an overwhelming sense of intrigue, atmosphere and wonder that I’ve only ever really seen in a few other sci-fi novels (the most recent example I’ve read probably being Becky Chambers’ “A Closed And Common Orbit“).
Thematically, this is also a novel that covers timeless topics like inequality, the environment, moral ambiguity, religion/tradition and how power corrupts. All of this thematic complexity is mostly explored through the novel’s excellent cast of characters.
Every major character in this novel comes across as a complex, realistic person with emotions, history and motivations who experiences a significant amount of character development as the story progresses. I cannot praise the characterisation in this novel highly enough 🙂 This story has a large enough cast of main characters to feel epic, but a small enough cast of characters to allow each one to actually have some depth. I could spend absolutely ages going on about the characters, but this is one of those stories that just feels “realistic” in terms of its portrayal of humanity.
In terms of the writing, it is also excellent 🙂 This novel’s third-person narration is formal and descriptive enough to lend atmosphere and complexity to the story, whilst still being gritty and “matter of fact” enough to keep the story feeling realistic. Yes, like many 1980s novels, the writing is probably a little formal or slow-paced by modern standards – but if you’re used to this writing style or willing to get used to it, then you’ll be rewarded with some timelessly brilliant storytelling.
As for length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At 536 pages, this novel is a bit of a tome. But, thanks to the complex and epic story, this length is justified. “The Snow Queen” is one of those books that is best when savoured and enjoyed in smaller instalments of 10-50 pages at a time.
The pacing is really good too. Although you shouldn’t expect too much of a fast-paced novel here, the plot moves along at a fairly natural pace and is structured in a way that means that it never gets boring. Likewise, the story also becomes more and more dramatic and compelling as it progresses too 🙂 Although the earlier parts of this book were interesting, the mid-late parts were even more gripping than I’d expected.
In terms of how well this forty year old novel has aged, it is pretty much timeless. Yes, there are a couple of brief moments that seem mildly dated and the writing style is also a bit formal by modern standards, but thanks to the novel’s complex sci-fi setting and well-written realistic characters, this could pretty much be a modern novel 🙂 Like how George R. R. Martin’s 1996 novel “A Game Of Thrones” still seemed fresh when it was faithfully adapted to TV in 2011, this is the kind of novel that could easily be made into a complex, fresh and modern TV series or film with hardly any changes. In other words, it’s pretty much timeless.
All in all, this is an excellent sci-fi novel that is well worth reading if you’re a fan of Frank Herbert, Becky Chambers or “Game Of Thrones” 🙂 It has excellent characters and worldbuilding and is the kind of classic sci-fi novel (and book series) that really should be more well-known than it is 🙂 It richly deserves its Hugo Award 🙂
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.