Book Review: The Snow Queen

Book Name: The Snow Queen
Author: Joan D. Vinge
First Published: 1980
Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel (1981)

Joan D. Vinge seems to be a private person. Few personal details are available about her beyond that she has lived most of her life in Madison, Wisconson and suffered a terrible auto accident that prevented her from writing for around five years. She has been a writer for most of her life, starting her first stories as a small child. In college, she studied Anthropology which she has incorporated into her art. Ms. Vinge has been married twice and currently lives in Tucson, Arizona.

Several of Ms. Vinge’s stories have won major acclaim. Eyes of Amber won the 1977 Hugo Award for Best Novelette. The Snow Queen won the Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in 1981. She has also been nominated for several other Hugo and Nebula Awards, as well as for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her novel Psion was named a Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association. Robert A. Heinlein also dedicated his novel Friday to her.

The Snow Queen is based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name. The citizens of the planet Tiamat are split into two factions. The “Winters”, who believe in technological progress and trade with the star spanning Hegemony, and the “Summers” who live by folk traditions and eschew the outside worlds in favor of their own simpler ways. Every 150 years, the orbit of Tiamat around a black hole impacts the planetary ecology and closes the window of travel to the other worlds. Travel off of Tiamat is only available during the “Winter” rule and it is all controlled by a single matriarch known as the Snow Queen. At the end of her rein, tradition calls for the Snow Queen to be killed and a female leader from the Summers will take her place as ruler of Tiamat. The current Snow Queen, Arienrhod, has a plan to save her life at the end of her rein which is swiftly approaching. She creates several clones of herself and scatters them among the Summer people. She hopes to switch places with one and then to rule the planet as the “new” Summer Queen.

The story of The Snow Queen follows a young woman by the name of Moon. She is one of the clones that the Snow Queen had placed among the summer people. Moon is loved by a young man named Sparks, but when she takes her place as a shaman among her people, known as a Sibyl, he decides to depart and discover more about his off-world heritage. In the capital city of Carbuncle, Sparks is discovered by Arienrhod and enters into a relationship with her. He becomes her “Starbuck”, consort and the commander of the hunt for the intelligent sea creatures known as the Mer, upon which the wealth of Tiamat is based.

Moon receives a message that she believes is from Sparks and attempts to go to Carbuncle although it is barred to sibyls. Along the way she becomes entangled with smugglers and is kidnapped off-world. While on the Capital Planet of Kharemough, she discovers the answers to many mysteries about Sybils and their strange knowledge and why Tiamat has been cut off from the rest of the Hegemony. Moon returns to Tiamat and continues her search for Sparks. She confronts the Snow Queen and participates in a ritual that will decide who will rule the planet and how Tiamat will face the Hegemony after the 150 years of summer are over and travel can resume through the black hole once again.

I read The Snow Queen when it first hit the shelves in 1980. It was a lush, long novel based on a favorite fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. I didn’t care that it had won a major award and I had never heard of Ms. Vinge, but I immediately became enchanted by this story and all the meticulous details of their lives. Each character became a real person to me and the story itself was of a complexity that I do not encounter often. I liked that it had a strong female lead character, something that was not quite as common then as it is in writing today. Ms. Vinge became one of those authors that I look for on the library shelf.

The story has stuck with me down through the years, like an old favorite song, just under your awareness. I find that it crosses my mind now and then as I wonder about the nature of where ideas and creativity come from or when I want an example of a powerful woman protagonist in a story. All of that is part of what makes The Snow Queen special. Of all the books in the Snow Queen Cycle, The Snow Queen is my favorite. Although its sequel, The Summer Queen, is certainly just as powerful a read and memorable. I highly recommend this series of novels to add to your reading list.

The Snow Queen Book CoverThe Snow Queen Cycle

The Snow Queen (1980)
World’s End (1984)
The Summer Queen (1991)
Tangled Up In Blue (2000)

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