Joan Vinge’s The Snow Queen is loosely based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale of the same name (they’d use “inspired by” if this were a movie trailer), and the novel does nicely balance the creation of a rich and detailed science fiction universe with a faerie tale feel.
The novel centers around the world of Tiamat, which has inhabitants divided into two clans: the Summer clan live simple lives in the forest without knowledge of technology; the Winter clan live mostly in the vast city of Carbuncle and have a steady trade with an interplanetary confederation called the Hegemony, which has been built on the husk of the fallen Old Empire. Tiamat is important to the Hegemony, because it is the only source of a chemical that grants immortality, which is harvested (brutally) from sea-creatures called Mers.
Tiamat is part of a binary star system, and every century or so, its interstellar gate (a converted black hole) is closed down for a hundred years by the alignment of the two stars. So, when the gate is open, the Winters rule the planet, when the gate is closed, the Summers rule. The transition includes an elaborate ceremony climaxing in human sacrifice. The titular Snow Queen is the Winter ruler of Tiamat, and at the beginning of the novel, she attempts to clone herself as a Summer so that she won’t have to give up all her power in the coming transition. The most successful result is a girl named Moon, the novel’s protagonist. Moon is in love with a boy named Sparks but also has a spiritual calling that separates them. The rest of the novel follows her winding quest to find Sparks as he faces the corrupting power of the Snow Queen and all of them run afoul of the Hegemony and its police force.
It’s a very elaborate setting, and one that recalls Dune in several ways: monarchical corruption and imperial decay in space, immortality drugs with mysterious origins, mystics guiding faster-than-light travel. It’s not, in the end, as fascinating a world as Dune, but Vinge, unlike Herbert, does manage to create some very complex characters. Moon may have some of the same messianic qualities as Paul Atreides, but she’s also more grounded and likable, as is the Snow Queen herself, despite being the villain of the piece. And, a pair of police officers, who manage to get an increasing amount of coverage as the novel goes on, are also compelling characters (probably my favorites). Vinge has created a fine set of characters and learning their fates really propelled me through the novel, especially after the first hundred pages or so, when I really knew them.
Where the novel falls down, and it certainly does stumble a bit, is in the plot and pacing. The novel depends on contrived meetings. The same ten characters keep running into each other at opportune times, and you begin to wonder if there are only ten people on Tiamat. When Moon happens to get kidnapped by the same bandits who have kidnapped one of the police officers who had saved Sparks and tried to arrest her and been teased by the queen five years earlier, I had to roll my eyes. The pacing is also an issue. At one point, five years pass within a few pages with little activity, while a couple of impossibly busy days make up the bulk of the novel. Finally, the book could have used some trimming. Much of the novel is actually taken up by characters explaining the plot to each other – sometimes its nice to see characters’ reactions to developments, but that’s not usually the case here. Rather, it’s just redundant material that should have been skipped through.
So, I’d have to call The Snow Queen a mixed bag. The characters are great, the setting is fascinating but sometimes feels derivative, and the plot has problems. In the end, I did enjoy it quite a bit, but there were some rough patches along the way.