Literature: The Snow Queen Series

The Snow Queen Series, by Joan D. Vinge, is a series of four books set in the far future world of the Hegemony. The first and titular book, "The Snow Queen", is a multifaceted, old-fashioned Space Opera cast in the form of a high-tech fairy tale, with nods to Dune and Welsh Mythology. It won the 1981 Hugo Award for its author.

Tiamat is a mostly oceanic world which orbits a black hole, and seasons there last for hundreds of years. In the warm years, the Summer Queens rule and the planet reverts to primitivism; in the cold years, a single Snow Queen is kept perpetually at age 18 by the water of life, a youth serum extracted from the blood of the native "mers". In the Winter years The Hegemony, remnants of a once mighty star-spanning empire, are able travel through the nearby black hole to exploit Tiamat’s resourcesp; in the Summer years, the black hole becomes too unstable for space travel, and the planet loses whatever luxuries and technology it had.

The story begins when Arienrhod, a Winter Queen whose reign is soon to end, seeks to break the cycle of exploitation by cloning herself among the Summer fisherfolk, with the idea of retrieving her daughter at adolescence and having her reign as the next Summer Queen. However Moon, her clone daughter, has other ideas for her life; raised among simple villagers, she falls in love with her cousin Sparks, becomes a sacred advisor/prophetess known as a Sibyl, and is kidnapped and taken off-world where she learns the true nature of the sibyl network and the decay of the forner Empire. Sparks, meanwhile, travels to the capitol city of Carbuncle to find his fortune and becomes the Snow Queen’s lover and chief huntsman responsible for the slaughter of the sacred mers. Woven through all this are the offworlders from the Hegemony, many of whom have their own agendas.

Basically there is something for everyone in this book: feminism, adventure, romance, empire building, love triangles, exotic cultures. A sequel, "The Summer Queen", was later written, as well as two ancillary novels, World’s End and Tangled up in Blue, which fill in the plot and answer questions about what happened between the two longer books. The books were published in this order:

  • The Snow Queen (1981)
  • World's End (1984)
  • The Summer Queen (1991)
  • Tangled Up in Blue (2000)

However, the timeline of the books is as thus:

  • The Snow Queen
  • Tangled Up in Blue
  • World's End
  • The Summer Queen

Contains examples of:

  • After the End: The Hegemony is all that remains of a once-mighty human starfaring Empire.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot
  • Anti-Villain: Arienrhod's goal in having herself cloned is to prevent Tiamat from voluntarily abandoning high technology during the Change, and position itself as a full partner in the Hegemony instead of as the victims of Fantastic Racism.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Arienrhod's plan was for Moon, her last remaining clone, to get herself elected Summer Queen. It works, though it's clear Moon is a very different person than her predecessor.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Off-world slavers have drugged Sparks and are about to cut out his tongue, preparatory to taking him off Tiamat. PalaThion and Gundhalinu rescue him just in time. Much later, PalaThion and her officers have similarly excellent timing when the Source's doctor is about to render Tor Starhiker mindless.
  • Bizarre Seasons: Though the exact length in Earth years of Tiamat's two seasons is never explicitly stated, Arienrhod reflects she has barely been given two (human length) lifetimes for her reign, so 160 for each is a good guess. Enough to turn over 8 generations.
  • Blind Seer: Fate Ravenglass. She even has a third artificial eye in the form of a band across her forehead.
  • Break the Haughty: As if his experiences as a captive of Winter nomads aren't enough to break BZ Gundhalinu, he also has to face the contempt of his fellow Kharemoughi when he escapes.
  • Call Reception Area: Inverted where the two protagonists, Moon and Sparks, venture to a "choosing place" to determine if they will become "sibyls" (something that means a lot more than they realize). They had previously had an agreement that they would either both be chosen or neither, so that they would stay together, but The Call Didn't Care — Moon was chosen and Sparks was Refused by the Call, she broke their agreement, and... the rest of the story followed.
  • Clone Degeneration: Three of Arienrhod's nine clones don't survive birth; five of the others are physically or mentally handicapped. Presumably averted with Moon herself, who is as intelligent and capable as her clone-mother. Arienrhod and Herne speculate harshly that this may have taken place nonetheless, as Moon lacks Arienrhod's callousness. BZ argues that Moon, as a clone, "could be better, for the things that were gained or lost inadvertently."
  • Clones Are People Too: It never dawns on Arienrhod that her clone-daughter might not share her goals, until it's far too late.
  • Cloning Blues: Moon differs significantly from her clone-mother Arienrhod.
  • Cool Chair: Arienrhod's throne is made from clear, ornate glass, with a velvet cushion for her head.
  • Cool Old Lady: Elsevier. Fate Ravenglass qualifies as well.
  • Corralled Cosmos: The Hegemony comprises at least eight planets, but because interstellar travel is only possible through black holes, they are in actuality thousands of light years apart.
  • Dark-Skinned Redhead: Sparks Dawntreader, who is half Kharamoughi (a dark-skinned offworlder race.)
  • Deadly Decadent Court: Arienrhod's nobles are described as favoring bizarre, androgynous fashions and trying to play-kill each other with stunguns. They are also hinted to have group sex with each other.
  • Determinator: Moon is going to Carbuncle to find Sparks, and neither the Hegemony, the Snow Queen, nor the laws of physics can stop her.
  • Determined Homesteader: Ngenet Miroe.
  • Determined Widow: Elsevier says that, after the death of her beloved TJ, the only thing that gives her life meaning is carrying on his crusade.
  • Diabolical Mastermind: The Source, who also The Faceless because of his aversion to light.
  • The Dragon: Basically Starbuck's job description.
  • Evil Albino: Arienrhod, although she is not so much evil as ambitious and decadent. However, she did also try to kill her Summer subjects by infecting them with an offworld virus.
  • Evilis Sexy: Arienrhod, and she is not afraid to use it.
  • Fantastic Caste System: There are several.
    • The Tiamatans are divided into two great clans, Winters and Summers. Winters favor technology and dominate when the offworlders reside on Tiamat, while Summers are more religious and primitive, and dominate when the offworlders leave.
    • The planet of Kharemough, which dominates the Hegemony, has three castes: Tech, Non Tech, and Unclassified. Techs are the highest, Nontechs comprise artists, and Unclassifieds act as Untouchables.
    • The planet of Samathe has two: Talls (normal humans) and Shorts, who have been dwarfed by genetic damage.
  • Fantastic Racism: the population of Tiamat are kept deliberately downtrodden for the Hegemony's benefit. Also, though Kharemoughi pay lip service to equality, they tend to look down on natives of any planet other than their own.
  • Fantastic Drug: The Water of Life, the youth serum extracted from the blood of mers.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: Arienrhod, who started life as the daughter of Winter fisherfolk; Herne, who began as a Kharemoughi Unclassified (basically an Untouchable); arguably Sparks.
  • Going Down with the Ship: Elsevier.
  • Going Native
  • Heroic Albino: Moon Dawntreader, though not technically an albino, is described as having pale skin and hair like cream, with light green eyes the color of moss and mist agate.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: In the course of the series, both BZ and Sparks, the two men who love Moon, will sacrifice their own happiness for her sake.
  • If I Can't Have You: Arienrhod would rather see Sparks die with her at the Change, than allow him to find happiness with another. Then Herne points that she's enacting this trope, resulting in an Averted Trope.
  • Immortality Immorality: The wealthy, decadent few who can afford to take the Water of Life.
  • Jurisdiction Friction: On Tiamat, only off-worlders are subject to the Hegemony's legal system; any natives caught in crime must be turned over to the Queen's justice. Unless it's a crime that would affect her or her plans, Arienrhod usually simply releases the perpetrators. Thus, criminal enterprises on the planet generally use a Tiamatan front man or front woman to avoid prosecution. This is an endless source of frustration to PalaThion and her force.
  • Kissing Cousins: Moon's mother is sisters with Sparks' mother. Given her actual heritage, they are not actually related; but given their cultural heritage, it was not a big deal when everyone thought they were.
  • Love Triangle: Moon, Sparks, and BZ Gundhalinu; also Arienrhod, Moon, and Sparks.
  • Jerkass: Herne, and arguably Sparks Dawntreader. Herne also qualifies as a Jerkass Woobie before he's done.
  • Junkie Prophet
  • Masquerade Ball: These are held by the Snow Queen to honor the Hegemony's periodic visits. Moon was implanted in a Summer woman at one of them.
  • Mental Fusion: the secret of the Sibyl network. Each acts as terminals for a galaxy-wide information system. Ask a Sibyl anything. If anyone else in the network knows it, the one in front of you can tell you the answer.
  • Missing Mom: BZ Gundhalinu's mother left the family when he was quite young; like many young children in such situations, he blamed himself. Sparks's mother died in childbirth, not surprising given the primitive conditions in which Summers live.
  • Moses in the Bullrushes: attempted by Arienrhod.
  • New Meat: BZ Gundhalinu.
  • Noble Bigot: As a Kharemoughi Tech, BZ Gundhalinu begins the storyline by genuinely believing that his people are better than the rest of those in the Hegemony, and that the people of Tiamat are nothing but savages. That said, he does his best to protect those "savages," shows a lot of courage and integrity, and is unshakably loyal to the beleaguered PalaThion. KR Aspundh, another Tech, likewise deeply believes in the superiority of his own people (and unlike Gundhalinu, does not change his mind in the course of the story), but does not hesitate to do his duty in teaching Moon, even though he realizes this is not in Kharemough's best interests. He also keeps his word to look after his sister-in-law Elsevier, even though he doesn't share her cause, and may not even care for her.
  • Properly Paranoid: PalaThion is convinced that the Snow Queen is targeting her personally. She's right.
  • Raised by Natives: Moon.
  • Reentry Scare: When Elsevier takes Moon back to Tiamat, their ship is shot down.
  • Refused by the Call: Sparks, who then resents Moon's choice to become a sibyl without him. In World's End Song, though she lied to her sibyl mother and was infected by the virus anyway, to her detriment. BZ Gundhalini claims to have been refused, but he never actually went to a Choosing Place.
  • Sapient Cetaceans: The mers, even though they are more seal-like. They sing like whales though.
  • Single-Biome Planet: Tiamat is a water world with a few scattered islands.
  • Spiceof Life: Because of its youth-extending powers, The Water of Life is a hot commodity on the interstellar market.
  • Starcrossed Lovers: Moon and BZ Gundhalinu.
  • Super Villain Lair: The Royal Palace, which is full of CCTV networks so Arienrhod can spy on her court, as well as a bottomless pit filled with dangerous winds all visitors must cross.
  • Vice City: The capitol city of Carbuncle, because, acording to the author, "It can be either a jewel or a fester, depending on your point of view." In Winter times, it is a city dedicated to the pleasure of the offworlders, and criminal gangs, smugglers, and worse run rampant.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Arienrhod's goal is to prevent Tiamat from voluntarily abandoning high technology during the Change, and position itself as a full partner in the Hegemony instead of as the victims of Fantastic Racism. To that end, she commits murder, enables crime lords, and plots genocide.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Mers have never been known to harm a human, but humans slaughter them regularly, for the sake of their longevity-granting blood. And then we learn they're intelligent! Aquatic, non-humanoid dillyps are shown several times as being considered less than human; it's telling that Arienrhod is relieved when she learns the intelligent being slaughtered at Starbuck's last Hunt was a dillyp.
  • World Building
  • You Are Better Than You Think You Are: PalaThion tries to communicate this to Gundhalinu, when he crumbles under the scorn of his fellow Kharemoughi. In World's End, Moon offers him the same reassurance when he is terrified after having been infected by the sibyl virus.