Where to start? This story is so immense that to find that single strand to start unravelling it from is almost impossible.
This is a space opera story. But it is so much, oh so much more than that. The first of a four-book series, The Snow Queen is based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale of the same name. Several things need to be considered here.
Millennia after the fall of a galactic empire, people continued to live on worlds spread around the galaxy. The people of one world, Kharemough, discover space travel, and learn of other populated planets. And so they form the Hegemony, with a largely ceremonial government travelling constantly between the worlds. A Hegemonic police force is placed on each world, ensuring that Hegemonic law is enforced and adhered to. Space travel is through black gates. While the traverse is instantaneous, years pass for those left behind.
Tiamat is one of the worlds in the Hegemony. It has twin suns that orbit a black hole. Because of its proximity to the black hole, the world is only accessible to the Hegemony for 150 years at a time.
The people of Tiamat are split into two groups: the Winters and the Summers. The Winters live in the northern hemisphere. During the 150 years that the Hegemony has access to Tiamat, a Winter queen rules from Carbuncle, the world’s only city, while the Summers live in the tropical islands farther south. When the orbit of the twin suns draws them nearer to the black hole, Tiamat becomes hot, forcing the Summers north to Carbuncle. As the Hegemony pulls out of the planet, the Winter queen is sacrificed in a ritual death to the sea. A Summer queen then reigns from Carbuncle until the time when the orbit draws the planet away and it cools again.
The Hegemony’s specific interest in Tiamat, it’s sole interest, is the Water of Life, an extract made from the blood of the Mers, gentle sea creatures that populate the world’s oceans. The only way to extract the blood is to slaughter the creatures, and this must be done in massive quantities to meet demand.
Against this backdrop, we meet Moon Dawntreader Summer and Sparks Dawntreader Summer, merrybegot children who have grown up on the islands. Cousins, they are lovers, permissible by the Summer customs. One day the pair go to a place of choosing to find out if one of them might become a sybil. The sybils are revered by the Summers as speakers for the Sea Mother. They make a pact that if one of them doesn’t get chosen, neither of them will go through with becoming a sybil, but when Moon is chosen and Sparks is not, Moon finds she cannot, and does not want to, pull out. And so Moon becomes a sybil, and Sparks, feeling betrayed, leaves the islands for Carbuncle. The son of an offworlder, he has always been interested in technology, so Carbuncle is a logical choice.
Distressed, Moon seeks to follow him to Carbuncle to declare her love for him, but along the way, her plans get derailed.
Meanwhile, in Carbuncle, the Snow Queen, Arienrhod, is coming to the end of her reign. She has reigned for the full 150 years, her life prolonged by the Water of Life that Starbuck, her consort, slaughters the Mers for. Determined to lift Tiamat out of the technological dark ages the Hegemony enforces on them – technology is permitted during the Winter reign, but when the Hegemony pulls out, it destroys all electronics – she has been stockpiling equipment. But she has also cloned herself, determined that, despite her impending death, she will live on beyond her death and achieve her goal.
I first read this book as a teen, and loved it. Now I’ve read it again as an adult, and I still love it. The world-building is magnificent, and the potential for a bigger story is woven through the book. I just love a complex story, and this one’s right up there. Which is making it extremely difficult for me to review it without releasing any spoilers from their pens. For me, the concept of a little Hegemony scraping itself together using the remnants of a fallen galactic empire, the whole concept of Tiamat and it’s location around a black hole and the implications of that, and the Mers… it’s all wrapped up in a bundle that just satiates my desire for great science fiction and a great story.
Vinge’s writing is meticulous in its detail, and yet she doesn’t get bogged down. The story flows (straight from the pages to my mind), and is engaging and fun. I cannot recommend this book enough, to those who like a good space opera and some visionary scifi.