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The Snow Queen

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

I can't recall the source, maybe a review, maybe an entry in the Science Fiction Encylopedia, but the idea was that some people consider science fiction to be a sub-genre of fantasy. If true, The Snow Queen would be a good example. To start with, Vinge used the Hans Christian Anderson story of the same name as a framework. Even though the setting is another planet, it could just as easily have been a poor country at the mercy of more powerful rivals. There is science and technology, but it's never explained, "indistinguishable from magic" as Clarke would say. The Snow Queen rules over Tiamat from her castle, aided by her consort and royal guards, along with the typical entourage of nobility. She has autonomy over her world, while at the same time her actions are held in check by the off-world forces of the Hegemony. They allow limited use of tech by the natives, but retain knowledge of its manufacture and repair to themselves, as well as withdrawing tech from the planet on a periodic schedule.

Tiamat orbits a binary star system, the Twins, which in turn orbit a black hole. In this instance, the black hole is described as a wormhole in space, which the Hegemony uses to access the Tiamat system. Arienrhod has ruled as Queen for over a hundred years, prolonging her life with a substance derived from sea creatures called mers. However, her long reign is fast approaching its end. The seasons of Tiamat are very long, controlled by the complicated movements of the Twins. Arienrhod is called the Snow Queen because she is in power during the long Winter, but tradition holds that when Summer arrives the Queen sacrifices her life to the Sea Mother to make way for a Summer Queen. At the same time, the black hole becomes unusable by the Hegemony, so they withdraw to their other worlds, taking all their tech with them, or else disabling anything left behind. Arienrhod schemes not only to retain her crown, but also to appropriate as much tech as possible before the Hegemony withdraws. Little does she know that the soon to be Summer Queen has similar plans.

This was my first time reading the novel, and with the possible exception of a short story, the only thing I've read from this author. It won the 1981 Hugo, along with the Locus Award, and was nominated for a Nebula. As I have been reviewing former award winners I've looked at the other books from the same year to see how I might have voted at the time. Of the other titles on the Hugo ballot, I believe Silverberg's Lord Valentine's Castle is better, but better still is a Nebula finalist, The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe. It's interesting to note both of them are also examples of fantasy-tinged science fiction. There are passages that are well written, and there are several interesting characters, while others are more stereotypical or less well developed. Even the sympathetic ones do questionable things, so it's hard to care much about them. It took longer to read than it should because it was difficult to maintain my interest for long. It's basically a fantasy love story with (very few) science fiction trappings. The plot meanders quite a bit, leaving little time for details on the true nature of the mers or the 'spiritual' cult of the sybils, but there are other books in the sequence, including the Hugo and Locus finalist The Summer Queen from 1991. I have it, as well as the intervening novella, "World's End," but it's not likely I'll bother with either of them any time soon. If I ever do, I'll add to this review.


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Joan D. Vinge


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