For those unaware, The Snow Queen is a fairy tale originally written by Hans Christian Anderson in 1845. Possessing all the elements that make tales fairy—innocence, love, severance, magic, and the blackest of evil, his story was ripe for a modern revisioning a la Roger Zelazny, Donna Jo Napoli, Jeff Vandermeer, Neil Gaiman, and a host of other writers who have used the seeds of the past to grow stories of their own. Not letting the opportunity slip away, Joan D. Vinge wrote The Snow Queen in 1980. Anderson’s story fully transposed into a science fiction setting, Vinge succeeds on a number of fronts, but falls short in others.
The basic plot structure of The Snow Queen remains true to the original: a pair in love are separated and must escape the wiles of the Snow Queen to find their way back together again. Triamat, however, is a far different setting than Anderson’s. A water planet, two groups (called the Summers and Winters) inhabit what little land exists and every 150 years exchange power. At the start of the novel, the transition from Winter to Summer is drawing nigh and the Snow Queen is preparing to sacrifice herself in the traditional ceremony which marks the handover. Secretly, however, she has scattered clones of herself around the planet, hoping to keep her position after the transition.
Moon is one such clone. Raised in a fishing village far from metropolitan Carbuncle (Tiamat’s capital), she grows up strong and healthy and spends her youth in love with her cousin, Spark. When the time comes to take the test to determine her station in life, the pair suddenly find themselves going opposite directions—and quickly. Spark ending up on Carbuncle’s unforgiving streets penniless and alone, he must find ways to fend for himself, while Moon, stranded far from Tiamat, must find a way back to her home and love. Will the pair reunite? Readers of the fairy tale already know the answer, so it must be in the telling that something interesting is featured.
Joan Vinge appears to have no shortage of imagination. The Snow Queen possesses numerous fantasy and sci-fi ideas—some old, some new—that are infused in a fresh setting. In fact science-fantasy, people fly in space ships, aliens appear in society, and a magical, life-granting elixir is fought over, traded, and ultimately killed for. The city of Carbuncle is wonderfully realized, its coral spiral standing aloft from the iron-dark waters coming to life in the mind’s eye. Based on the ceremonies and sense of tradition inherent to the colorful scenes and theatrical tropes, the book is a true meal for the senses. The masks, they are just a beautiful touch.
Offsetting the positives of plot and creativity are a few negatives, however. Bogged down with internal monologue, in the hands of another writer the story could have been presented in a style far more engaging, not to mention efficient. Page after page of narrative appears in block paragraph form, the story jerked along by fits and starts of action scenes and hasty bits of dialogue that only temporarily assuage the monotony between. Readers not bothered by the wandering drone of character/author thought will find nothing wrong, while others will wish Vinge would pull back the blanket of verbosity and liven things up with a better balance between monologue and dialogue.
But a bigger issue in The Snow Queen is the clash of mode and theme. With several important subjects under discussion, among them environmentalism, cultural domination and discrimination, the value and use of knowledge, and the role of women in power, one would expect a narrative suitable in tone. Vinge, however, chooses to keep things fairy tale, i.e. melodramatic, and in turn undermines the gravity of her dialectic, not to mention the realism of her characters. The result is scenes with potential have their legs swept out from under them by cheesy sentiment—Disney-style moralizing. Vinge may remain true to the fairy tale roots of the story, but she fails to balance her method of exposition with the weight of the themes. Read Zel (Napoli) or The Graveyard Book (Gaiman) and to see fairy tale better intertwined with content.
In the end, The Snow Queen is a novel that can be respected for its aims but is best appreciated for its aesthetics. The world, characters, and scenes lovingly described, images of fantastic delight spring easily to mind reading the adventures of Moon and her return to Spark. Upon deeper examination, however, flaws appear that cast doubt upon the novel’s overall integrity, some choices of presentation not panning out well. In short, the novel is a fairy tale in more than origin, a disappointing fact for its themes. Fans of Roger Zelazny may enjoy Vinge’s classically influenced science fantasy, just don’t expect the same sharply edged style.