Saturday, November 3, 2018

The Snow Queen (Joan D. Vinge)

The Snow Queen
The Snow Queen Cycle, Book 1
Joan D. Vinge
Popular Library
Fiction, Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: The world of Tiamat is a world of two suns and two peoples. For 150 years, the Winter people and their Queens in white reign from the ageless capital of Carbuncle. Here, they enjoy the wealth of the interstellar Hegemony, who trade their technological wonders for a life-extending elixir made from the blood of a native species. But when the proximity of a rogue star makes the Black Gate unstable and equatorial regions inhospitable, the offworlders take their technology and abandon the world, while the rustic Summer people reclaim Carbuncle for the next century and a half under their Summer Queens. The ancient traditions of the Cycle ensure that the natives of Tiamat never gain enough independence to challenge the Hegemony, or threaten the flow of the "waters of life" to the other worlds... but Arienrhod, Winter Queen, tires of offworlders exploiting her people, not to mention the Change that sees the Winters revert to little more than primitives during the long summer. She and her consort Starbuck, lives extended unnaturally by the waters, have plans for independence - plans that may cost many lives on her world and beyond, and that have already cost her much of her own humanity and soul. Those plans begin with a single child in a distant land...
Summer-born Moon has known two things about her destiny since she was old enough to walk the island beaches of her home: that she would marry her halfblood cousin Sparks Dawntreader, and that she would become a sibyl, speaker for the holy Lady of the Seas. But when she finally hears the Lady's call, it tears her from Sparks's hands, setting her on a path that will lead her far from the islands, far from her homeworld - even as far as the palace in Carbuncle as Winter's reign ends. For the Winter Queen herself awaits the arrival of Moon, her chosen heir... and perfect clone.

REVIEW: The Snow Queen, a sci-fi story loosely inspired by the fairy tale of the same name, was first published in 1980. At the time, it was probably progressive - it makes a point of having women leaders resisting patriarchal societies - but it hasn't aged particularly well. For all the powerful women it tries to present, their motivations almost invariably boil down to a man. Moon's mutual bond with Sparks remains her driving need through the majority of the book, an inherent naivete that flattens her character and makes her come across as a teenager caught in puppy love... and more than a bit of a too-perfect character for whom anyone (particularly males) will do anything. Arienrhod has burned through lovers for her long life, part of her overall personality of using and ruining people for her own ends or mere amusement, but nevertheless becomes obsessed with the same man her clone covets, even as her former favored lover both seethes in hatred and pines for her lost affections. Commander Jerusha, the offworlder police captain who fought Hegemonic misogyny for her post, nonetheless discovers that her life is incomplete without a husband (not a strong subplot, but very much present.) There's even a minor female villain whose main problem is that she needs to be taught to coddle and nurture others ('cause you know a woman is incomplete without being Soft and Motherly.) Even when the characters discuss the unfairness of caste systems and patriarchal prejudices, those "all for a man" undercurrents - probably more glaring today than they were in the 1980's - drag things down.
Beyond that, the story itself has some decent moments, but too often loses itself in writing that tries too hard to be Writerly. Some of the dialog and descriptions, particularly toward the climax, almost had me laughing out loud at the melodrama, and Vinge's offworlder languages and cultures felt stilted. Though it starts at a decent pace, it soon bogs down, not helped by more than one predictable, borderline cliche turn. The final third feels unnaturally drawn out, even while leaving deliberate threads dangling for the next installment. For all that, Vinge presents decent ideas in Tiamat and the Hegemony. I can see how The Snow Queen won its cover-advertised Hugo in its day. Ultimately, though, I don't think time has been kind to this tale, and I doubt I'll pursue the rest of the cycle.

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