Thursday, November 13, 2014

Review: The Summer Queen by Joan D. Vinge

Cover art for The Summer Queen, featuring a pale skinned woman wearing an elaborate mask made of grass, flowers, an feathers. She holds two vials in one hand, one topped with a skull and the other with a spiral.
As is so often the case these days, this is less of a proper review than a space where I think about a book out loud. I have a lot of thoughts on THE SUMMER QUEEN, which is a sequel to both THE SNOW QUEEN and WORLD’S END, and I’m keen to ramble about it for a while. I looked forward to this book for so long, and I ended up putting it off for ages upon ages because it had a high page count and a ridiculously tiny typeface1 and I was scared I wouldn’t love it.

Sequels to bestest-books-of-all-time put a lot of pressure on a girl, you know? Especially when you factor in the tiny font and the large number of pages.

Thing is--and I teach myself this over and over, because I can't seem to keep it in my head--neither high page counts nor tiny fonts are much of an issue when you love the book in which they feature. And oh, did I ever love this one.

Be forewarned: my rambling contains spoilers for both previous books. THE SUMMER QUEEN picks up mere months after THE SNOW QUEEN’S end and follows the characters through roughly the next twenty years. It also overlaps with WORLD’S END at a couple of points before it shows what follows on from that book, too.

My biggest question going in (aside from “oh gods, are the characters going to be okay? Who am I kidding; it's a Joan D. Vinge novel, so definitely not") was whether THE SUMMER QUEEN would follow the same fairy tale structure as is predecessors. THE SNOW QUEEN was an SF retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale2 of the same name, while WORLD’S END was less a straight retelling than a riff off the age-old story in which a younger brother succeeds at a quest his hapless elder brothers fail.

As far as I can tell (and I could be wrong; see footnote 2), THE SUMMER QUEEN is neither a retelling nor a fairy tale riff (though it’s as much of a quest story as any novel). Instead, it’s about what happens after the fairy tale ends and the characters must live with the consequences of what they’ve accomplished.

On Moon’s side of the equation, she busts her ass to save the man she loves, become Queen of Tiamat, and effect great change for her society as per the sybil net’s instructions. Typical fairy tale stuff. But having fought so hard and achieved so much, she must face a future where ruling a world is grueling work that demands a fabulous amount of mental energy, especially when you can’t fully explain your actions because the AI that drives you renders you physically incapable of speaking of it. And also? The guy she moved heaven and earth to save isn’t necessarily the guy she wants to build a life with.

BZ Gundhalinu saves his ungrateful brothers and rediscovers a Stupendous and Magical Thingy in the form of the smartmatter necessary for FTL drives. Again: typical fairy tale stuff. But having a Stupendous and Magical Thingy isn’t the same as being able to use a Stupendous and Magical Thingy, especially when you’ve also got to navigate the personal and political fallout from your discovery. It’s a long, rough road littered with secret societies and bonus psychopaths.

Also, pain.

Basically, the book broke my heart on almost every level. I spent an awful lot of time trying not to care about it so damned much; something I only do with the books that affect me most deeply. This sort of evasive action means I’m engaged. I’m committed. I care about the characters and want things on their behalf.

And I love THE SUMMER QUEEN for that, for making me feel so many things so intensely, but there was initially a part of me that also hated it for not being the fairy tale I thought it would be. Which is a stupid, irrational reaction born more of strong emotion than actual loathing, and I've refused to let it stand. Y'all know I love variations of 'The Snow Queen,' and I love it in large part because it's about a woman who rescues a man. She fights hard for him, and she gets his soul back, and they’re supposed to be able to move forward together.

But they’re able to do that because there’s a magical eraser for all the bad shit the man did, and because the story ends before the work begins. When you transport the story to an SF setting, she can't simply flush the evil mirror from his eye and melt the ice from his heart. Both parties have to work hard to rebuild their relationship, and to make amends. And even if the man does everything in his power to make up for the bad he did, the woman is in no way obligated to forgive him.

Sparks does make a valiant effort to do good work, and to help the mers he once hunted, but it’s pretty clear Moon isn’t willing to entirely forgive him. Neither does she make much of an effort to reach out to him beyond the work they do together to help Tiamat prepare for the offworlders’ eventual return. For his part, Sparks is unable to parse the changes she’s gone through as a sybil and as a queen, and it’s impossible to insist he should merely try harder when Moon is so clearly disinterested. Ultimately, neither one of them is capable of giving the other what they need, or of working towards a place where they might learn to understand one another again.

Hello, heartbreak. Nice to see you again.

Have I mentioned that Joan D. Vinge is awfully good at making me fear for her characters? I'm always so sad for everyone, and so scared they'll never find a way to stop being sad (slash making me sad, slash remain alive). It makes for a hell of a read.

I was so sad for Moon, locked into a life she doesn't really want and unable to connect with anyone. She develops some good working relationships, but her personal life is a mess. It's like the geas that prevents her from speaking of her true purpose as the sybil net's avatar freezes her ability to communicate in other ways, too. She’s incapable of telling anyone the most essential thing about herself, and so she says nothing at all beyond what’s required of her to keep the world moving forward. All her mental energy goes to providing Tiamat with the technology that might help them hold their own against the offworlders. She has little space to think of anything that doesn’t impact her goal, and her family falls by the wayside.

It's an understandable reaction, but it still breaks my heart. I desperately wanted her to work harder on her relationships with both Sparks and her children; to find a way she could be a person as well as an avatar of the AI that drives her actions. It killed me to watch her drift so far from everyone else. It makes sense she would look to BZ4 as a helpmeet throughout her struggle; someone who’s not only largely divorced from her current predicament but who, as a sybil, is capable of the same sort of communication she feels is all that’s left to her.

As much as Moon’s situation hurt, I got the most emotional about Sparks, perhaps because he was the first one I feared for back in THE SNOW QUEEN3. I feel like he does try hard both to make up for his past misdeeds and to rebuild things with Moon, but he’s reaching for an impossible goal. No matter what he does going forward, he’ll always be the one who slaughtered the mers and embraced Arianrhod’s decadent, destructive ways. It’s entirely possible the good he does will never outweigh the bad, at least not in everyone’s eyes.

I've got kind of a thing for characters in similar predicaments, so I'm okay with all that. It's a nice sort of pain.

The thing that really hurts is how he is with his kids. I was so happy when he embraced them even knowing they might not be biologically his--but then the cracks began to widen. It’s obvious he favours Ariele first because it's easiest to pretend they share genetic material and later because he fears Tammis is headed down the same path he himself followed when he first came to the city. I desperately wanted him to talk to Tammis about this, to build something with the kid, but he stubbornly refused to do so.

Fictional characters, man. They just won't see sense

Then he spirals downwards, and he tries to drown the pain in ways he know won’t work but still sees as the most attractive option because they're at least familiar, and he finally has this realization, and I basically cried a lot of wretched, ugly, spoileriffic tears over Sparks and his stupid choices, plus the rare, wonderful things he gets right.

On a somewhat less direct-line-to-Memory's-emotions level, we have BZ realizing the world he grew up in isn’t the one he wants to live in. He fights to change the system from within, and as his actions snowball he’s also forced to confront how his choices impact others. His discovery of the smartmatter changes everything for everyone, in ways both large and small. Once the Hegemony makes it back to Tiamat, they’re going to exploit the world’s resources and potentially undo everything Moon has worked for, both socially and in regard to the sybil net's maintenance. He works hard to ensure he can dictate policy and help ameliorate some of the damage. Meanwhile, in his personal life, he comes to realize how his reclamation of the family estates has impacted the woman who once took up what his brothers threw away. I got really emotional over his relationship with Dhara; the way he deals with how he hurt her, and the friendship they build together.

I wish we'd seen more of Dhara, if only because I always want to spend more time with fictional artists. She's lovely.

I also wanted a lot more Jerusha than Vinge gave me. Jerusha has a strong emotional stake in the early part of the book, but her significance fades as the story progresses. I wished we got to watch her exert a more active impact on events. She becomes an observer and a helper, above all else.

At least Vinge writes some other interesting characters into the mix to fill the gap. Reede Kullervo, the Hegemony’s foremost expert on smartmatter, surprised and ultimately fascinated me. He’s an enigma, a cold and violent person who looks set to remain fairly static but who acquires depth as more of his antecedents come to light. I was particularly fascinated with how Kedalion and Ananke, the workers he bullies into his service, change their view of him as their association lengthens. I look forward to reconsidering him the next time I read the book.

On a less positive note, we have Tammis, who is bisexual. I’m always pleased to see bisexual characters crop up in any given text, but I’m less thrilled when they proceed to embody troubling bisexual stereotypes. Tammis, to be blunt, can’t keep it in his pants. He’s got a wife whom he professes to love and desire very much, but he can’t resist the urge to slip away with guys even at his own wedding5. I’d like to believe Vinge is going for a conflicted-young-man angle rather than an all-bisexuals-are-shiftless-adulterers vibe, but it’s difficult to say without more examples. Sparks is the only other overt bisexual whose POV we enter, and he’s no happier to acknowledge the label fits him than he is to see evidence of same-gender attraction in his son.

THE SUMMER QUEEN is occasionally problematic as well as painful. Let’s not gloss over that in favour of the book’s many good qualities.

Characters aside, I’d dub this very much a book about change. It’s about dealing with massive shifts in your life, and to the impact other peoples’ choices can have on you. It’s about trying to find the best way forward, even when that way means sacrificing what you most want in favour of something more achievable.

Sometimes, the only way you can keep going is to burn your old life to the ground.

It’s extraordinarily painful. Like I said above, I loved the hell out of it for all the ways it hurt me, but also hated it a bit. That hate has faded as I've spent more time thinking about the book and sifting through my reactions, though, and I urge you not to view it as a negative either way. That's a stupid thing to say about hate, I know, but at its core it was a strong emotional response and a desperate longing for these characters to be all right, not an actual distaste for the material. There were a few spoilery areas where I wanted more from the story, yes, but on the whole this is an excellent and heartrending conclusion to the Tiamat cycle. It’s painful, difficult, and emotionally charged, and I’m so glad I finally got off my arse and read it.

Okay. I'm done thinking out loud now.

Links

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 SUMMER QUEEN (which you should do after THE SNOW QUEEN and WORLD'S END, please), you can try:

  • Koboicon (e-book; for purchase; coupons don't work)
  • The Book Depository (painfully expensive paperback; for purchase; free shipping worldwide)
  • Amazon (paperback & Kindle; for purchase)

I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you buy the book through one of the above links.


  1. Tiny fonts are my nemesis. It’s not a vision thing; it’s an oh-god-it-takes-me-forever-to-read-each-page thing. I’m firmly on Team Decent-Sized Typeface. It doesn’t have to be huge, but it should be large enough that I’m able to read, say, a page per minute. I don't think that's too much to ask. I'd much rather have a 1000-page novel with standard font than a 700-page novel with tiny font.
  2. Not that I recognized it as such at first. Hell, it took me a good 80 pages to realize THE SNOW QUEEN was ‘The Snow Queen,’ because their names weren't Gerda and Kai and apparently this made it too confusing for me.

    Don't worry, I'm properly ashamed of myself.

  3. I always kind of fixate on the first character in any given story who really hits me, either because I’m scared for them, because they hurt me, or because I realize how much I like them. Even if they don’t emerge as my favourite, they still command a special part of my attention.
  4. I'm just gonna go ahead and call him BZ because I keep worrying I've misspelled his last name. I'm really terrible with names. If I don't quadruple check them, I will spell them wrong. This is a big issue when I send e-mails.
  5. The people of the future have clearly forgotten the example set by one Peter Barlow on CORONATION STREET. Making out with anyone other than your wife on your wedding night leads to murder, incarceration, divorce, and woe--unless, of course, you and your wife have discussed the matter and decided that’s something you’d like to explore together. Alas, neither Peter Barlow nor Tammis Dawntreader take any such steps prior to their own extramarital wedding night make out sessions.

    I mean, really. It's like nobody learns anything from soap operas.

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