Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Review: The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge

THE SNOW QUEEN demands two reviews.

The Short, Gushy, Ungrammatical Version:

OMG y’all perfect book is perfect seriously I lost track of the number of times I whispered 'this is perfect' as I read because there were SO FRICKIN' MANY OF THEM like it’s an SF adaptation of Anderson’s 'Snow Queen' okay and I have this weird thing for that story but that didn’t even matter to me at first because I’m kind of an oblivious dumbass and I fell in love with the book before I realized what was going on and once I did was filled with TERROR and AWE and EMOTIONS because omg the characters are fantastic and I was SO WORRIED ABOUT THEM and also the worldbuilding you guys so many ideas and science fictional thingies that feel more like fantasy because there’s all this tension between mysticism and technology and also there’s the whole fairy tale adaptation angle and my heart hurts now IT IS PERFECT EVERYTHING IS PERFECT OMG HOW AM I EVEN SUPPOSED TO WRITE COHERENT THINGS ABOUT THIS BOOK IT IS JUST PERFECT.

The Version That (Hopefully) Makes Sense:

Hans Christian Andersen’s 'Snow Queen' follows me around.

I’ve read five, maybe six, adaptations of the story, each of which I loved and none of which I initially recognized for what it was. It’s like I’ve got a mental block where 'The Snow Queen' is concerned. I’m drawn to this particular plot, but I can never manage to spot it coming.

You’d think THE SNOW QUEEN would be an exception, what with the title and all.

You’d be sorely mistaken.

Yep. I’m the dumbass who took eighty pages to realize THE SNOW QUEEN was an adaptation of 'The Snow Queen.'

In my defense, I assumed that interpretation was a bit obvious and so could not, in fact, be correct. Also, Vinge's Gerda and Kai equivalents aren’t called Gerda and Kai, or any variation of Gerda and Kai1. So, you know, easy mistake.

...yeah. I don't buy my excuses either.

If you’re unfamiliar with 'The Snow Queen,' (or you’re like me and you can’t keep it in your head): the original fairy tale centres on two children, Gerda and Kai, whose deep friendship falters when Kai gets a shard of magic mirror in his eye and loses the ability to recognize any good in the world. He falls into a downward spiral of negativity and woe which only increases when he hooks up with the evil Snow Queen. Gerda refuses to give up on him, though, and embarks on a quest to return him to himself.

THE SNOW QUEEN puts an SFnal spin on the tale. Arianrhod, immortal queen of a planet where seasons last upwards of a hundred years2 and technology is heavily regulated by offworlders, seeks to extend her rule (and technology’s influence) into the coming Summer by having herself cloned3. She keeps close watch over the resulting clone, Moon--and over Moon’s childhood friend and lover, Sparks. When Moon’s innate ability to harness a millennia-old technology takes her down a path Sparks cannot follow, he flees to the Winter city of Carbuncle and falls under Arianrhod’s influence. Moon, however, refuses to believe he’s lost to her forever, and undertakes an epic journey to reunite with him.

And it’s perfect.

Perfect, perfect, perfect.

I mean, I get that it’s not really perfect. The ending feels a tad long4, and maybe some of the characters come and go quickly. (I’m fine with the length of time we spend with everyone, but you may disagree.) I was also a touch uncomfortable with how possessive both Moon and Sparks are of one another (but hey, at least it's mutual possessiveness). The book is so perfect, though, that I’m willing to overlook any and all imperfections, thus bolstering the initial idea that it is perfect.

This, as you can imagine, makes it rather difficult to explain why I love it so much. Right now, my whole brain is a mass of OMGTHESNOWQUEENOMG PERFECTBOOKPERFECTBOOKPERFECTBOOK, mingled with occasional deeper thoughts about the characters and suchlike.

I really just want to point to the book and be like, "This! This is why I loved it! Because it is a thing that exists and is perfect!"

Which is unhelpful.

So. Let’s approach the topic in a roundabout way.

To begin with: I liked the book from the get-go, which is rather rare for me as I almost always need time to adjust to new fiction. Vinge’s style is so appealling that I was quite happy to wallow in her prose, sinking further and further in until I was past the point of no return.

I realized that point had come and gone around page 50, when something Very Bad happened to Sparks5. Until that moment, I wouldn’t have said I cared overmuch about the guy. He didn’t exactly display grace and maturity when Moon’s circumstances changed, and to be honest, I wondered why the narrative even followed him. Wasn’t this Moon’s story? Why should I care about her stroppy ex?

Except I did care about him. In the space of a few pages, with no more than a handful of sensory details and a couple of telling scenes, Vinge forced me to understand Sparks; to sorta-kinda like him; and, most importantly, to fear for his continued wellbeing.

Therein lies the heart of my love for THE SNOW QUEEN. Vinge possesses the rare, wonderful talent of forcing the reader fear for her characters. My terror for Sparks made me realize I wasn’t just invested in his wellbeing--I was terrified for pretty well everyone.

As the story rolled along, I feared Moon’s forced sojourn offworld would last so long that her entire life would be gone by the time she returned to her home planet. I was scared for Elsie, the tech runner, so desperate to do right by Moon even as she had no choice but to harm her new friend. I clutched the book so tightly it crinkled when Jerusha, the only female police inspector on the planet, came under fire from all sides, and I watched, helpless and desperate, as her mental health unravelled.

I had to read on to make sure they’d all be okay. And I never, ever managed to kick the fear that disaster was just around the corner.

And of course, I remained terrified for Sparks--maybe because he was the one I first feared for, and maybe because I always react strongly to characters of his sort.

Sparks does awful things in service to Arianrhod. The Snow Queen’s manipulations and Moon’s loss affect him so deeply that he throws himself headfirst into a cycle of pain and cruelty. He hates what he does and what he’s become, but he can’t make himself stop. Having done one terrible thing in an attempt to cope with his grief, he deliberately debases himself further out of an honest belief that he doesn’t deserve anything more.

Characters who fear they can never be good always hit me hard. Always.

Since this is science fiction, not a fairy tale, there’s no shard of magic mirror lodged in Sparks's eye or in his heart. His actions come from him and there can be no magical explanation or solution6.

Even knowing how the original version played out, I remained terrified Moon wouldn’t be able to save him--or, worse, that she wouldn’t want to once she realized what he had become. ‘The Snow Queen’ is about a woman rescuing a man, but that doesn’t mean all adaptations of the story have to follow the same path. It can as easily become a tale about a woman who realizes the man she loves cannot be rescued and she should rebuild her life without him.

The text makes it clear that the effect on both characters would be catastrophic. Their bond isn’t always logical, but it’s deep. I was terrified of what it would do to Moon if she decided to give up on Sparks, and of what Sparks might do if Moon returned to him, only to turned away. I read on, panic clenched tight at the back of my throat, and prayed everything could be all right even as I knew it probably never would be. Vinge acknowledges that redemption and forgiveness can’t be instantaneous; that coming back from a downward spiral requires a lot of work over a lot of time, and offers no guarantee that things will ever fully heal.

Damn, y’all. I'm trembling again, just thinking about it. It’s perfect. It’s the sort of book you care about with all your heart.

Vinge also introduces a number of interesting SFnal ideas, including much about involuntary simplicity’s effect on a culture, the challenges women face in spheres traditionally dominated by men, and the struggle to regain lost knowledge--but I fear I haven’t the brain space to unpack all that right now. My first experience with any beloved work is basically a crumb coat wherein I react emotionally more than intellectually. Give me another reading or two and I’ll expound at great length about what Vinge does with her science fiction. Right now, I’m content to simply feel for her characters.

And to lust after the rest of the series, of course. I’ve managed to acquire a copy of WORLD’S END, the second book in the Tiamat cycle, but the others are currently beyond my reach. My library owns none of Vinge’s books aside from THE SNOW QUEEN and a couple of her film novelizations, and the current editions are prohibitively expensive. (Seriously, Tor? $30 for a trade paperback of THE SUMMER QUEEN7? Does each copy have gold woven into the binding?) I pray the Book Gods send me reasonably priced used copies good and soon so I can wallow to my heart’s content.

In the meantime, I'll settle for strongly encouraging y'all to seek out THE SNOW QUEEN. I suspect the story isn't for everyone--the things I love the most rarely are--but you love it even half as much as I did, you're in for a treat.


While I always advocate your local library as the absolute best source for books, I recognize this may not be an option for everyone where every book is concerned. If you're in search of another way to read THE SNOW QUEEN, you can try:

I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you buy THE SNOW QUEEN through one of the links above. The Audible edition is available immediately, while the paperback will be back in print in October 2015.

  1. Or Kay, depending on the translation. The spelling change has always confused me a bit, because I assume that means Kai and Kay are pronounced the same. Personally, I’d rhyme "Kai" with "eye," like the Maori do. (Kai is the Maori word for food. People in NZ use it interchangeably with the English word.)
  2. Is this a common SFnal concept I’ve somehow encountered only twice, or can we assume George R.R. Martin has read THE SNOW QUEEN?
  3. Clearly, Arianrhod has never seen ORPHAN BLACK. Otherwise, she'd know clones are only physically identical. (Sidebar: watch ORPHAN BLACK, please and thanks. Unless you've already done so, in which case I commend you for your excellent taste.)
  4. Though to be fair, I did read the last half in a marathon session that took me through to one in the morning. Most things feel a tad long at one in the morning, especially when you’ve been reading for something like six hours straight. (My copy has ridiculously tiny font, and I'm not the fastest reader at the best of times. I envy those of you who get through 100+ pages per hour; 60 is about my limit.)
  5. Semi-spoiler: it probably helped that he was in danger of having his tongue cut out. I am extremely squeamish about tongue-removal at the best of times. Coming as it did shortly after he began to establish himself as a musician, this one hurt all the more.
  6. In the original story, Gerda tricks Kai into crying, thus dislodging the shard from his eye.
  7. This is the part where I kick myself good and hard, because I used to own a copy of THE SUMMER QUEEN and I gave it away. In my defense, it was a) an enormous hardcover, b) the sequel to a book I hadn’t read, and c) science fiction I accidentally purchased at a time in my life when I eschewed any and all SF. I bought it as part of my library’s by-the-bag discards sale because the cover tricked me into thinking it was fantasy, then donated it to Goodwill when I decided I’d never read it. Damn. I mean, I wouldn’t be thrilled with its huge hardcoverness even now, but at least I could read it without shelling out massive amounts of cash.


  1. An awesome review of an awesome book. I love this one and have read it several times, so I'm so glad to see someone else does too.

    I have a copy of The Summer Queen (which you can't have!) but I haven't managed to read it yet - mostly due to the large number of pages and small print. However, it if helps you, it's available as a Kindle book. The first two aren't (which I find totally annoying as I'd like to have them all as ebooks) but The Snow Queen is available from Audible if you like audiobooks.

    I'm slowly listening to The Snow Queen, then I hope to reread World's End (also a very good book) and then, finally, read The Summer Queen. I'll definitely be keeping an eye on your blog to see what you have to say about World's End - and if you find a copy of The Summer Queen.

    If you've found you like Joan Vinge, I suggest you also try her "Cat" books. The first is Psion, which I read a very, very long time ago as a teenager from the local library. I own all of those too, but that series is available on Kindle (and hopefully other platforms) as well.

    I saw/met Joan Vinge at a convention here in Auckland several years ago (she was very nice and signed my hardcovers and we talked about ME). Sadly she was in a serious car accident a number of years ago and it significantly affected her health (hence the ME chat) so she didn't know if there would be more books or not. She's done a couple of media tie-ins since then, so I remain hopeful. Cat's story could still do with a conclusion, although all the books conclude well. His personal journey isn't finished though.

    1. I'm on the hunt for the Cat books! They're also really expensive here, for some reason (though they'd be considered cheap in NZ!), so I'm hoping I can find used copies. If that doesn't pan out, I'll bite the bullet and buy e-books, but even those are a bit more expensive than I'd prefer to pay for a non-transferable product.

      I heard about her car crash around the time COWBOYS & ALIENS came out. I think Tor.com ran a story on how she decided to get back into writing so she could pen the novelization? Hopefully this means she'll have some more stuff out eventually. I keep coming across the 47 RONIN novelization, which gives me hope.

  2. Oh goody, my library has this! (And several other Joan Vinge books, so it would be great if I turned out to like her.) Adding it to the list straightaway because I cannot resist your enthusiasm woman! Even though I do not care for HCAnderson as a writer, in general. (Snow Queen's okay. The rest of his stories not so much.)

    ORPHAN BLACK IS THE BEST. Why is it so many days before there will be new episodes of Orphan Black?

    1. I'm so jealous of your well-stocked library. Why doesn't my library have more Joan D. Vinge? I guess I could put in a request for purchase, but I always feel so guilty doing that when the books I want are on the expensive side. Blah. Maybe they'll just, like, reach a decision on their own like they did with SUPERNATURAL.

      To be perfectly honest, I've never managed to read Andersen's Snow Queen all the way through. I gave it a quick scan while I was writing this review to make sure I had some of the details right, but I've never been able to, like, sit down and read it. I guess I should remedy that...

      I KNOW, RIGHT? WHY IS THERE NO NEW ORPHAN BLACK RIGHT NOW??? I want it ever so much.

  3. This has been on my TBR pile for about two years now, and I'm still baffled as to why I haven't read it yet. I love both fairy tales and sci-fi, and the original Snow Queen was one of my favorite books as a kid. :)

    1. I think there's an excellent chance you'll love it.