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Literature / The Snow Queen Series

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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 resources; 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 former 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 in order of internal chronology are:

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

Contains examples of:

  • After the End: The Hegemony is all that remains of a once-mighty human starfaring Empire.
  • All for Nothing: Averted. Arienrhod crosses the Despair Event Horizon as she marches to her ritual execution, believing she'd failed completely to avert the Change. But when she sees the face underneath the Summer Queen's mask, she realises that her death is not in vain at all.
  • 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.
  • Ascended Extra: BZ Gundhalinu. He has a relatively small (though plot-relevant) role in The Snow Queen, providing support for PalaThion and falling in love with Moon. He goes on to become the Point of View character and sole protagonist of World's End and one of the three leading characters of The Summer Queen, and is the only character from the original book to play a major role in Tangled Up in Blue.
  • Ax-Crazy: Many of the Scavengers, particularly Blodwed, a tyrannical teenage girl who physically assaults her (even eviler) "grandmother", pushes her siblings around, and keeps a menagerie of imprisoned animals and people. Played with in that Blodwed ends up being the least despicable of her group, showing occasional tenderness towards Moon and eventually letting her and BZ leave.
  • 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.
  • Bad Samaritan: Tor, the first person Sparks befriends in Carbuncle, takes him to an illegal fighting ring and robs him blind while he's distracted by the bloody spectacle. The next time they meet, Sparks has risen far above her socially and forces her to become his window into the city's vice.
  • 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.
    • In Tangled Up in Blue, LaisTree and Gundhalinu are facing death when the Hegemonic Police bust in and turn out to be equally murderous bad guys, making this an aversion.
  • 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.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Single-minded prospector Ang does not spend much time on planet Consensus Reality.
  • 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.
  • Daddy's Girl: Arielle for Sparks even after she learns he isn't her biological father.
  • 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.
  • Diabolical Mastermind: The Source, who also The Faceless because of his aversion to light.
  • Disappeared Dad: Sired by an offworlder, Sparks is an adult before he ever meets his own father.
  • The Dragon: Basically Starbuck's job description.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Arienrhod grows to genuinely love Sparks in her own, very toxic way.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Arienrhod reflects how the Lady's Mercy will ensure this no matter how she personally feels about it, but it's played straight.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Sparks after becoming Starbuck; he gets better before it's too late.
  • 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, NonTech, 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.
  • Fantastic Medicinal Bodily Product: The blood of the mers, a creature native to the planet Tiamat, is harvested to produce the "water of life", an Immortality Inducer. The mers are in danger of being hunted to extinction because of this
  • 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.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: For the Summers, at least. Arienrhod is actually a pretty benign monarch towards the Winters, shown to reward good service and share the water of life with her most loyal servants. When she plots out the fine points of her Evil Plan with the Source, she dismisses any indiscriminate methods that could harm the Winters, as she specifically wants to exterminate the Summers while keeping her own people safely in power. Unusually for the trope, she is a genuinely competent and shrewd administrator, and considers her own death an acceptable sacrifice so long as her planet has a future.
  • Going Down with the Ship: Elsevier.
  • Going Native: Ngenet and PalaThion, among others.
  • Hazy-Feel Turn: Herne after his brutal fall from grace. He ends up helping Moon for purely selfish reasons, but his actions and support are instrumental to her success and Sparks' survival.
  • 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. Arienrhod eventually takes this attitude toward Sparks, letting him live out his life with Moon rather than insisting he die with her at the Change.
  • 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.
  • Jerkass: Herne, and arguably Sparks Dawntreader. Spadrin of World's End as well, along with HK and SB Gundhalinu. Herne qualifies as a Jerkass Woobie before he's done, but Spadrin and SB Gundhalinu are straight-up Jerk With A Heart Of Jerk.
    • Jerkass Has a Point: Herne points out how Moon ended up doing to Gundhalinu what Arienrhod did to him. The methods were different, but the result was the same.
  • 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.
  • Let's Get Dangerous!: Moon during Taryd Roh's Attempted Rape.
  • Love Triangle: Moon, Sparks, and BZ Gundhalinu; also Arienrhod, Moon, and Sparks.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: According to Elsevier, highborn Kharemoughi look down on any Kharemoughi-offworlder relationship. This emphatically includes Elsevier's own marriage to Kharemoughi Tech TJ Aspundh: her Kharemoughi niece-by-marriage treats her with bare civility. Though Gundhalinu is not married to the Tiamatan Moon, he is scorned, and eventually even accused of treason, for falling in love with her.
  • Manipulative Bitch: Arienrhod. Moon dips into this as well when needed.
  • 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.
  • Mirror Character: A major theme of the story — Moon and Arienrhod are as similar as they are different. Moon is just as capable of manipulative and pragmatic behaviour as Arienrhod, and through her twisted relationship with Sparks Arienrhod rediscovers feelings she'd thought long lost.
  • 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 Bulrushes: 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.
  • The Resenter: Arienrhod has a lot of bitterness towards the Hegemony for the way it exploits her planet while keeping it stagnated; one of her ambitions is for Tiamat to join the Hegemony as an equal. Moon also comes to feel this way about the issue.
  • 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.
  • Spice of 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.
  • The Unfavorite: Poor Tammis.
  • 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.
  • Villain Has a Point: For all her flaws, Arienrhod is completely justified in her desire to change the Change and stop the Hegemony's unfair treatment of her planet. Moon agrees with this so strongly, in fact, that she ends up embracing the very destiny that Arienrhod had intended for her in the first place.
  • We Can Rule Together: Arienrhod offers this to Moon near the end. Her original plan was to give Moon the mentoring and training she'd need to replace Arienrhod during the Change, ensuring that Tiamat would have a future through a Summer Queen who'd share the Snow Queen's values.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • You Killed My Brother: Nyx LaisTree of Tangled Up in Blue is desperate to repay his brother's killers in kind.