Thursday, November 21, 2013

Hugo Winner and WOGF Review: 1981 The Snow Queen

Joan D. Vinge
Completed 6/29/2013, Reviewed 6/30/2013
4 stars

“The Snow Queen” is based on the Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen.”  In a way, I wish I knew this before beginning the book.  I read the fairy tale after the novel, and understood why she made some of her plot choices.  However, for the general reader, it is not necessary to read the fairy tale before the novel.  Vinge’s book stands on its own.

After reading so many earlier Hugo winners, I’ve become accustomed to short SF novels. I find myself impatient with the later, longer novels, looking for plot movement rather than prose and extensive characterization.  I struggled with this book for this reason.  From the beginning, it seems that the plot is simple; we can predict how it’s going to end.  So just get on with it.  At some point, though, I stopped fighting it and realized how well the book is written.  Vinge’s prose is lovely.  It creates an amazing universe and gives us very well developed characters.

The other trouble I had with this book is that it is basically a sweeping romance.  I have never read books normally categorized as romance, but I have read romantic best sellers like “The Thorn Birds.”  This novel reminded me of that type of book.  A woman goes on an epic journey, battles evil, and discovers her true self as she searches for her one true love, all in an SF/fantasy setting. 
This book also fails the Bechdel test.  To pass this test, a work of fiction must satisfy the following requirements:
  1. It has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.(I didn’t add a footnote, but you can do a quick internet search to confirm.  And Alison Bechdel is an awesome graphic novelist.)
The main characters are all strong woman.  Vinge even notes that she wanted to write a book with strong female characters.  However, in the end, all their primary motivations are the finding or keeping of men.  And even though they talk to each other about major plot points, it all boils down to men. 

The realization of this made me want to dismiss the book as nothing but a glorified romance.  Again, I had to get over myself and my prejudices to realize that this is a really good book. 

So despite all the negativity I’ve unleashed, I give this book 4 stars.  I loved the subplot of the mers, the revelation of the nature of the sybils, and the extensive use of masks.  A whole paper could be written about masks.  The snow queen herself is deliciously evil, and yet not without a pinch of humanity. 

“The Snow Queen” is a marvelous book, and well worth the read.  I highly recommend it, particularly as a wonderful example of the transition point in the evolution of the science fiction novel.  It is epic in style and creates an incredible universe (and borrowing from a quote on the book jacket) not seen much in science fiction since “Dune,” and the works of Ursula LeGuin. 

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