Joan D. Vinge’s 536-page science fiction novel has a rather complicated plot, so I’m going to use/trim the synopsis on Wikipedia (click link to read full synopsis). Based on the fairy-tale of the same name by Hans Christian Andersen, The Snow Queen takes place on a mostly oceanic planet called Tiamat, whose suns orbit a black hole, which facilitates a type of interstellar wormhole travel and connects Tiamat to the rest of the civilized galaxy (the “Hegemony”, the remnants of a fallen Galactic Empire).
The residents of Tiamat are split into two clans: “Winters,” who advocate technological progress and trade with offworlders, and “Summers,” who depend on their folk traditions and rigid social distinctions to survive on this marginal planet. Every 150 years, the sun’s orbit around a black hole dramatically impacts the planetary ecology. To keep the uneasy peace, the government switches between Winter rule and Summer rule. Interstellar travel between Tiamat and the Hegemony is only possible during the 150 years of Winter rule, and a single woman rules the entire planet: a “Snow Queen” in Winter, a “Summer Queen” in Summer.
The Hegemony’s interest in Tiamat has to do with the “mers,” sentient sea-dwelling creatures whose blood provides the “water of life,” a virus that halts the aging process. Mers are hunted as frequently as possible during the Winter years, to the brink of extinction. The “water of life” allows a single Snow Queen to reign for the entire 150-year season, and it is with the Snow Queen, Arienrhod, that the story begins. She has secretly implanted several Summer women with embryonic clones of herself, in the hopes of extending her rule past her ritual execution at the end of Winter. *end of Wikipedia synopsis*
I admit that some of the world building confused me, and it was only after reading the Wikipedia page that I realized the full extent of Vinge’s universe. Thanks to seeing the movie Intersteller, I readily accepted that two months on one planet equals five years on another — this is science that goes above my head, but the movie helped me somewhat grasp how it works. But how offworlders travel through the black hole was unclear to me. Since offworlders only go to Tiamat during the Winter rule, I wonder if it was a big party planet for 150 years at a time, and then they collectively “pass out,” so to speak, and have to recover from a metaphorical hangover for another 150 years.
What seems more like a fantasy novel is clearly science fiction the more you read on. What the Summers chalk up to magic or faith reveals itself as viruses and computers. I really loved that, especially after one Summer named Moon, the only clone of Arienrhod to survive, learns the truth about herself and her planet, she continues to make decisions based on what she was taught and maintains a balance between her upbringing and her new knowledge.
All of the characters felt natural to me, and I enjoyed the way Vinge paired people up, making their personalities play off of each other. Moon had her childhood friend, Sparks. Officer Jerusha had her partner, Gundhalinu. The con artist Tor had her apathetic robot, Pollux. Arienrhod has a lover who leads the hunt for the mers, and though the person changes based on her feelings, he is always dubbed Starbuck. These pairings made each character stronger, giving them someone with whom I could compare and contrast, and having a team always made the two more memorable.
While The Snow Queen doesn’t say something obvious about women, the feminism is naturally there, normalizing female and male characters doing the same things. Women are leaders, lovers, mothers, creative, adaptable, pilots, police commanders, queens. They craft plots and survive and save just as much as they are saved. It was pleasing to be immersed in a world where readers only occasionally bump up against sexism, such as Jerusha’s awareness that as police commander, her officers don’t like that she’s a woman, but most of the problems of the police service exist not because she’s a woman, but because the officers are hired by the Hegemony and sent to Tiamat to keep things under control. They’re all offworlders — outsiders — who aren’t respected by anyone, and Arienrhod makes their jobs as challenging as possible.
My highest recommendation for The Snow Queen is that I keep thinking about it, even though I’ve moved on to a new book. There are actually three more novels in the series, a shorter one that bridges the time between The Snow Queen and the much longer novel The Summer Queen. A fourth book takes readers back to events happening concurrently in The Snow Queen. Clearly, readers love Vinge’s work enough for her to revisit the universe she created, and I’m considering joining those fans come August when I’m done with my summer bingo challenge, which is plotted so tightly to increase my chances of finishing all 25 squares there’s no room for anything else!