The Snow Queen
by Joan D. Vinge
1980 • 471 pages • Dial Press
One of the things I love most about genre fiction is texture. I think it has something to do with imprinting on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy at puberty; there is something soothing and fascinating about exploring a meticulously put together and elegantly revealed world, be that world the future, the past, or something completely different through an engaging story. Actually finding such a world in genre fiction can be rare—because of how selectively I read (look, I know it doesn’t seem that way, but I can be discerning sometimes), I tend to read a higher percentage of great worldbuilding, but I have spent my fair share of time picking through every sf book available at bookstores, as both a customer and an employee. So it sometimes feels like an event when I do find a book with the kind of swooning texture that makes me slip my skein of skin and look up at the end of my commute and remember, wonderingly, where I am and who I am.
The Snow Queen did not feel like an event. It felt like something that had always been there. I mean this in terms of worldbuilding and in terms of filling in my atrocious gaps regarding my feminist speculative fiction history. Old school sf (1977 to 2001 per my definition, although I will fudge the numbers on the front end there) is comforting to me in a way that I don’t fully understand; it’s not as if I have a specific embryonic history with it. (Or, as I put it to Captain Cinema the other night, “Why am I so excited about Star Wars if I didn’t see it until I was in high school?”) The worldbuilding is comfortably worn in at the knees, taking place on a distant, “backwards” planet about to be abandoned by the ruling offworld Hegemony, themselves the scattered remains of a technologically advanced intergalactic empire. (There’s some fuzziness about the specifics of life on Tiamat, especially its political cycle, but there’s something charming about that to me.) And some of the topics tackled—a female chosen one, how female power operates in a patriarchy—point to when this book is written. Which is, of course, the thing I love most about speculative fiction—the ability to dissect the world around you from a totally different angle.
As you might suspect, The Snow Queen is a loose retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” Despite my love for fairy tale retellings, I haven’t quite gotten around to sci-fi retellings yet, although Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles is on my reading list. (I even own Scarlet. Somewhere.) Vinge makes it utterly elegant, as if her story just happens to hit some of the same beats. Childhood sweethearts (first cousins here, if you need any warning) True, Moon and Sparks are parted; Sparks becomes consort to the Snow Queen, the beautiful and immortal Arienrhod; and Moon abandons her life as a sibyl to go and find him. But it’s the details that make it utterly its own novel. Moon’s years-long detour that teaches her the truth about what sibyls are (which is perhaps my favorite worldbuilding note from this novel); the role of Jerusha PalaThion, the offworlder Chief Inspector tormented by the Snow Queen and a patriarchal culture; and, most importantly, the fact that Moon is Arienrhod’s clone.
It’s how the novel opens—Arienrhod forces an offworlder doctor to impregnate several unsuspecting women with embryonic clones of herself—and it’s how the novel ends, when Moon finally confronts Arienrhod to retrieve Sparks and pursue the destiny the sibyl’s source has told her is inside her. (Although Vinge puts it ferociously: “A nameless counterfate was alive inside her, and while it lived in her, she would not be afraid.”) Arienrhod is convinced that Moon will be a little copy of her, perfect for becoming her successor, the Summer Queen. Others speculate about the similarities between these two women and mostly reject the idea that they’re similar. But the novel itself is not so sure. After all, Arienrhod is closing on a century and a half of power, and even Sparks corrupts in the span of a few years. An ex-lover despises Arienrhod for her ability to command sway over other human beings (especially him); Moon is celebrated for her ability to inspire, heal, and thereby instill loyalty in others. Moon makes the argument that she and Arienrhod are different people; after all, they may be genetically identical, but they have different upbringings. Moon is a traditional Summer, and Arienrhod is a technology-obsessed Winter. But when Moon receives the mantle of Summer Queen, it’s Arienrhod’s face that the people see.
And that’s the great success of The Snow Queen—Vinge’s ability to tell an epic, complete story (Moon’s rescue of Sparks) as well as suggest the next epic, complete story (what will Moon do with the power that she has won?). I suspect I will enjoy The Summer Queen more, but, oh, how comforting to be in the hands of a master.
I rented this book from the public library.