Joan D. Vinge
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The Snow Queen

Questar, PB, © 1980, 469 pp, ISBN #0-445-20529-6
Reviewed August 2003

The Snow Queen is a complex science fiction novel that today - 25 years later - feels like it was well ahead of its time.

Millennia in the future, after the fall of the galactic human empire, a few planets have formed a Hegemony of world using technology recovered from the earlier civilization. One of these planets is Tiamat, whose elliptical orbit brings it too close to its black hole once every 300 years. This results in a shift between winter and summer, as well as a period when the Hegemony can't get to Tiamat. This is significant because it turns out that a species of aquatic mammals called Mers live on Tiamat, and their blood can be used to extend human life and youth - possibly indefinitely. So the Hegemony is very interested in Tiamat.

The story begins a few decades before the shift from winter to summer. During winter, the Snow Queen of the Winter people rules her world from the city of Carbuncle, but come summer, the Summer Queen will be crowned and the Winter Queen and her consort - the anonymous masked offworlder called Starbuck - will be sacrificed in a ritual marking the Change. The current Snow Queen is Arienrhod, who has ruled with beauty, youth and force of will since the last Change to winter, 150 years earlier. As with all Snow Queens before her, she schemes to retain her power after the Change, and this time her plan is to clone herself and see her clone raised as a Summer and to eventually become the Summer Queen.

The perfect clone which results from this plan is Moon, and we pick up with her story as a young woman, a few years before the Change. Raised with her cousin Sparks - half-son of an unknown offworlder - the two of them hope to become Sibyls, fortune-tellers who roam the Summer lands, but who are forbidden in Carbuncle. But the Summers' god of the ocean, the Lady, chooses only Moon, who cannot resist the call. Sparks, her true love, is crushed, and resolves to head to Carbuncle to learn about his father and possibly follow him into space - and thus to become an exile, for Tiamat citizens who leave are forbidden to return.

As a young Summer in the urban Carbuncle, Sparks is first taken advantage of, but soon is recognized and taken in by Arienrhod, who plans to use him to lure Moon to her. Which would be a fine plan except that Moon accidentally gets involved with tech smugglers, and a bold but downtrodden young Hegemony police sergeant, Jerusha PalaThion, busts the smugglers, resulting in them escaping with Moon off-world, and through the black hole.

Crushed by Moon's departure, Sparks naturally turns to her closest likeness, Arienrhod, becoming her Starbuck and doing her bidding in the name of her love for him. And Arienrhod herself turns to alternate plans, now that Moon is lost to her. Moon, meanwhile, has her own adventures...

As you can see, The Snow Queen is a complex and many-layered novel with richly-drawn cultures. At its center is Arienrhod, who is powerful and power-hungry, but who still represents her people - the Winters - and wants the best for them. Her machinations drive the story, as she contrives the existence of Moon, makes use of Sparks once he comes to Carbuncle, revenges herself on Jerusha for her perceived failure in keeping Moon safe on Tiamat, and envisions further mayhem to achieve her aims. She's a deep individual, seemingly fully in control of herself, but not entirely.

Moon is at once Arienrhod's double and her opposite number, having been raised a Summer but seeing many of the same things that the Snow Queen perceives. But then she sees quite a bit more due to her broader experiences with the Summers and on another world. In a way, she's the culmination of everything Arienrhod desires, but in a very different package from what the Snow Queen expected. In many ways it's Moon who is the novel's true protagonist as we see her grow and learn, and overcome tremendous obstacles in the name of her love for Sparks. (Her nature as a clone is worth comparing to two other notable cloning novels, C.J. Cherryh's Cyteen and Lois McMaster Bujold's Brothers in Arms and Mirror Dance.)

Sparks is the tragic figure in the story, longing for things he can't have, being taken advantage of by the worldly citizens of Carbuncle and by Arienrhod, and selling his soul to become the Snow Queen's true love, and thus putting himself directly in Jerusha's sights for his acts. Jerusha and her aide BZ Gundhalinu also play important roles in the story, trying to hold to their own senses of morality in the face of overwhelming forces acting against them: Arienrhod, the Hegemony's prejudice towards women and people not from its dominant planet, and other factors which rear up at inopportune times.

But in a way it's the planet of Tiamat and its cultures and traditions which are the star of The Snow Queen: The mask festivals which occur during winter and which culminate in the choosing of a Summer Queen, the division between the Winters and the Summers, the Mers and what they represent to the Summers and the Hegemony, the effort the Hegemony undertakes to keep Tiamat under its thumb, the efforts of Arienrhod to cast off their yoke, the Sibyls, and so forth.

And lurking behind it all is the poorly-understood technology of the old Empire, and the many mysteries it left behind. What's most impressive is that The Snow Queen feels not at all dated today. It's even got biological nanotech some years before it was envisioned in its present form (and even a few years before Greg Bear's Blood Music). Although the novel sometimes feels superficially like a fantasy, it's science fiction through-and-through and figuring out how all the pieces fit together without cheating and using "magic" is part of the book's fun.

The Snow Queen is a top-tier science fiction novel. Perhaps a bit slow at the start, but that's because it's setting up all the pieces. Once Moon heads off into space and you realize how everyone's aspirations have come crumbling down, the story really takes off. It's not to be missed.

World's End

Tor, PB, © 1984, 284 pp, ISBN #0-812-55711-5
Reviewed January 2004

World's End is a follow-on - but not really a sequel - to Vinge's acclaimed The Snow Queen. But, whereas The Snow Queen was a tour-de-force epic, World's End is the back-breaking odyssey of one man across a brutal world and through the turmoil of his own soul.

Inspector BZ Gundhalinu, who in The Snow Queen was a supporting character who had been enslaved, tortured, and finally saved by the young Sibyl, Moon, on the planet Tiamat, has been assigned to Foursgate since the Hegemony pulled out of Tiamat when that world's stargate entered its periodic shutdown phase. BZ wears the scars of his suicide attempt while enslaved to remind him of his past, and of his hopeless love for Moon, but they mark him as a failure among his own people. Even to his brothers, who come to Foursgate en route to World's End, where they hope to make their fortune, having squandered the Gundhalinu family fortune and heritage.

When his brothers fail to return, BZ follows them to the desert world, which is ruled by the Company which exploits its riches. BZ hooks up with a pair of dodgy prospectors, the cagey Ang and the criminal Spadrin, and they embark on a quest to find their fortune - and for BZ to find his brothers. Additionally, BZ has agreed to find the daughter of a wandering Sibyl; said daughter, Song, has been lost in the wilderness for months, and her mother believes she is near the town at Fire Lake, a roiling lake of heat which seems to be the center of the ever-shifting landscape of World's End.

Feeling tremendous guilt over leaving his father's final years in the care of his brothers, and his many felt failures on Tiamat, BZ finds coping with his comrades difficult, even as every day is a struggle to stay alive. But things get considerably worse when BZ eventually makes it to Fire Lake, and finds himself embroiled in a mystery to discover what the lake is, what its hold over the insane Song is, and how he can hold on to his sanity under such pressure.

Told in the first person - at first as journal entries, then as stream-of-consciousness narrative, World's End is an intensely personal story, with BZ often digressing to recall his youth on his homeworld, the love of his father, and his overwhelming feelings of insecurity and failure, even while he hangs on to the memory of Moon, the one person who had believed in him without reservation, even as he realized his love for her was fruitless.

It's a terrifically-plotted story of BZ's personality and sense of self being broken down to its very barest bones, physically by Spadrin and the ordeal of the desert, and mentally by Fire Lake. But he manages to find in himself the kernel of self-confidence to refuse to give in to his torments and horrors and lay down and die. Ultimately he finds that there's always time to start making right choices, regardless of the wrong ones in his past, and that belief in himself is more important than others' opinions of him.

BZ comes out of the story a changed man, and with knowledge that will change the face of the Hegemony (clearly leading into the next novel, The Summer Queen). But it's getting there that's all the fun. Although in some ways less ambitious, World's End is no less a quality read than The Snow Queen.

hits since 17 August 2003.

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