First Impressions: The Snow Queen

These are my first impressions after reading The Snow Queen (Joan D. Vinge; 1980) in May 2011. Some spoilers.

9175EUqkY+LThe Snow Queen is an epic story set on a distant planet, about the fall of one queen and the rise of another. The novel is based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson and tackles such weighty themes as immortality and the power of knowledge.

The strength of this novel lies in its world building. The planet of Tiamat is a fully realized world, an ocean-covered planet orbiting twin suns. Two tribes live there: the sea-going, island-dwelling Summers, characterized by a fear of technology and a superstitious worship of their sea goddess, the Lady; and the Winters, who live in the Northern regions and the shell-shaped city of Carbuncle, embrace technology and freely trade with the Offworlders.

Tiamat’s culture and history are shaped by the oddities of its planetary and solar system orbits. Every 150 years, it moves closest to one of its suns, bringing a long summer to the planet. This signals a complete power shift, as the Summers move north from the equatorial regions and the Snow Queen abdicates to the Summer Queen. In fact, the Snow Queen and her consort are sacrificed to the sea in a paganistic ritual following a multi-day festival similar to Carnivale or Mardi Gras.

During the same period, the planet orbits close to and then away from a black hole that enables interstellar travel to other planets in an empire called the Hegemony. While Tiamat is close to the black hole, the Hegemony maintains a presence there, sharing technology with the ruling Winters. When the planet starts to orbit away, the Offworlders must leave, and they destroy all technology before they go to keep Tiamat from advancing too much without their influence and perhaps declaring independence. The Offworlders’ interest in Tiamat comes down to the planet’s one valuable asset: immortal sea creatures called Mers. The Mers’ blood, called the Water of Life, can be harvested to provide ever-lasting youth.

The Snow Queen takes place at the cusp of this great Change. The 150-year-old Snow Queen, Arienrhod, has been scheming to maintain her power after the Summers take over. Her plan involves cloning herself, producing her Summer twin, Moon. But even though the two look alike, they are diametric opposites in personality. Arienrhod is self-absorbed and power-hungry, emotionless in her extreme age, a manipulator of everyone she meets. Her young twin Moon is compassionate and empathetic, someone who inspires adulation and devotion in everyone she comes across.

Moon has become a sibyl, a prophetess who can answer any question. Through this power she taps into an ancient network of knowledge and discovers the true significance of the Mers and why they must be protected. This prompts her to compete for the mask of the Summer Queen and the power to, as she puts it, change the Change.

Moon and Arienrhod are both in love with Moon’s cousin, Sparks. His character is probably the novel’s biggest flaw, because it seems implausible that these two strong women would go to such lengths for him. Sparks is narcissistic, petulant, and tends to make rash decisions or sulk when things don’t go his way. His character doesn’t improve or change much over the course of the story. He commits atrocious crimes, witnessed by Moon, who still wants to be with him even when much more attractive options are available to her.

This is a long novel that probably could have been a good deal shorter, but there is enough action and interesting dynamics to keep the reader involved. In fact, I would like to know more — about the ruling planet of Kharamough, for instance, and its rigid class structure, which we visit only briefly. Clearly, the novel is setting up for a sequel, since many conflicts are left open-ended and the resolution is not quite satisfying as a result.

The Snow Queen won the Hugo Award in 1981. The sequel, The Summer Queen, was published in 1991, and a third novel in the trilogy, Tangled Up in Blue, was published in 2000. Vinge also published a novella, World’s End (1984), set in the same universe.

First Impressions: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

These are my first impressions after reading Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie; 2013) in August 2014. I will be discussing Ancillary Justice in a future essay.

At one time, the artificial intelligence Justice of Toren was the brain of a massive starship as well as of the crew members on-board and the security forces keeping peace on a conquered planet, inhabiting the bodies of human prisoners-of-war, called ancillaries, whose brains have been wiped clean and repurposed. But now the AI, called Breq, is confined to just one of her ancillary bodies, as she doggedly pursues revenge against the one who betrayed her while becoming embroiled in a complicated struggle for power over the galactic empire.

Leckie_AncillaryJustice_TPAncillary Justice brings a new and unique flavor to the sub-genre of space opera. The story jumps great distances in time and space as it comes together, which may leave the reader feeling untethered at first–but stick with it. Leckie is building a complex empire, and she takes her time with it, allowing us to gradually become immersed. By the time Breq’s ship is destroyed, a heart-stopping moment, I was enthralled and couldn’t wait to keep turning the pages.

Beyond all the political machinations, the betrayals and conspiracies, I enjoyed this book for its interesting take on gender and for its completely unique point of view. Breq, the narrator, is at one point the mind for many bodies as well as a spaceship that can observe everything happening on-board. As such, the point of view is nearly first-person omniscient, which I don’t think I’ve seen done before. After the spaceship is destroyed and the AI is confined to only one body, Leckie continues to thwart narrative norms. For instance, Breq was created in a gender-neutral society where everyone is referred to as “she,” so she cannot distinguish between the genders and uses the same pronoun for everyone she meets, male or female. The effect on the reader is disconcerting, and leads us to question some of our assumptions about gender, especially in science fiction. This is just one of the many interesting questions Leckie raises in this multi-faceted novel.

I always enjoy it when a skilled writer takes overly familiar tropes and tries twisting them in new ways. 

Ancillary Justice won the Nebula, Hugo, Arthur C. Clarke, and Locus awards.