Friday, July 8, 2011

Judging a Book by Its Cover: The Snow Queen

In this column, Tia Mansouri is going to take a piece of fiction with a notable or elaborate cover and analyze it before she reads it, then compare what she expected to what actually happens and critique how she thinks the end result turned out. This month she's covering Snow Queen, by Joan D. Vinge. The cover art is by Leo and Diane Dillon, who in the illustration world are kind of a big deal, so needless to say she was excited to read the book. (Not to mention the book won the Hugo!)  We were excited too, since her book fits in very well with our theme this week of re-told fairy tales, inspired by the release of Jim C. Hines' The Snow Queen's Shadow.

The Snow QueenThe Cover: I am immediately drawn to the center of the piece, where four women’s faces align. I imagined the story would involve a strong theme of change and ascension, as the lower details invoke nature and flowers and progress higher into the pure white figure - presumably the Snow Queen herself. Because the elaborate mask shown could be either in the process of being put on the figure at the very bottom, who I assume to be the protagonist, or being taken off, I then wondered whether perhaps it is meant to be the other way around, and the Queen at the top is changing into the young girl at the bottom. The rather stylized shadow immediately to the left of the four figures has a certain Darth Vader aesthetic and I'd wager it possess a dark meaning for all of the women depicted.

Another stylized rendering of what I assume to be a city is at the bottom right, with very retro-future pod structures. There is also a woman in a space helmet, set as a counterpoint to the face inside the shadow man. A stylistic choice that charms me is how the hair and outfit of the Snow Queen further blend into the stars of the sky as a connection to space, and the leaves creating a green net for the figure at the bottom blend into the sea and the planet. The three main take home points I get from the image: this is a book about women, a book concerning masks and image, and a book about levels, be they societal, atmospheric, or existential, and the changes that bring characters from one to the next.

Review of The Text: Arienrhod, the Snow Queen of the planet Tiamat, is very much a calculating and Machiavellian ruler, and thereby very much willing to do all that she can and must do to remain in power. Including clone herself, which she accomplishes in the prologue. The focus then shifts to her clone, Moon, who has grown up oblivious to her true origin. She and her cousin Sparks assume similar structural roles to that of the boy and girl in the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, and eventually Moon must find and save Sparks from the control and tainted love of Arienrhod.

The world-building (or, I should say, galaxy-building) Vinge involves herself in is impeccable and expansive, and I can understand why the back cover has a quote by Arthur C. Clarke remarking that it has the “weight and texture of Dune”. There are two main classes of inhabitants of the planet Tiamat: Winters, who have ruled for a hundred and fifty years, and Summers, who are about to assume power in a cycle that is as old as the planet itself. The planet is unique in that when the Summers rule, technology is banished, and anyone who disagrees must leave and live in the rest of the civilized galaxy, ruled over by what is referred to as the Hegemony, who encourages the return to primitivism to ensure their continual dominance. Rather than let the descriptions of settings and civilization be plodding or clunky, we are instead introduced to a vast and well developed series of characters who hail from all levels of society and the galaxy, and who bring us their hopes, troubles, and personalities. There are street urchins, smugglers, consorts, robots, and aliens, among others.

The cover didn't lie, and Vinge writes distinctive and believable female characters that make the book shine: despite being genetically identical, she makes Moon and Arienrhod excellent foils. The book embraces the idea of fighting for autonomy as well as change and though Moon does triumph, Arienrhod puts up one heck of a fight. In fact, I never got the sense that she was out and out evil until the end of the book when she gets really desperate in her attempts to stay in power (and let's face it, if power was all you knew for a century and a half, would you just step aside?). Vinge makes her a splendid and believable villain through a tight third person which allows us not just to merely watch what she does, but understand and sympathize with her views. It's also much harder to hate her because she loves Moon so deeply. Granted, it is because she IS her, but it still gives her a compassion and nobility when she finally accepts her fate and concedes to Moon and the ritual of her planet.

Moon is a heroine who in the hands of a lesser writer would possess echoes of being a Mary Sue; however, her virtue in opposition to Arienrhod and her desire for change in opposition to the indifference of the galaxy endear and distinguish her. One of the most poignant moments of the book is when she sees the mask that will be given to Arienrhod's successor, the Summer Queen: its beauty and intricacy awe and inspire her to compete to win it, thereby giving her direction and an opportunity to right the wrongs done to her. Not only does she chase this dream, but has a vision of a better future for her people that she convinces her people to bring to fruition through sheer force of will.

In keeping with the idea of world building and layering, Vinge never throws too many important facts at once, but rather lets the reader uncover them with her characters. For example, Moon is selected to be a sibyl, one of a select group of truth-speakers both revered and feared on her planet. While we are shown the origin of Moon's training and examples of the power of a sibyl in use, the depth and reach of what it means in a greater context are revealed in slow, satisfying steps, so that a reader never gets the sense that it is being used as a magical deus ex machina, but rather an underlying thread which connects the galaxy and story itself. Another notable example is the class structure of the neighboring planet Kharemough (reminiscent of the Hindu caste system), an intricate and sometimes devastating sociological addition.

The dark shadow on the cover is the Queen's consort and right hand man, Starbuck, a role Sparks assumes after he is taken by Arienrhod. He is the face in the darkness on the cover, and the degree to which Vinge allows Sparks to debauch himself is daring and frankly admirable. And while he eventually reunites with Moon, things have irrevocably changed, and Vinge is just as bold in choosing to keep their relationship uneasy and complicated despite Moon's forgiveness.

Another character from the cover, the woman in the space helmet, Police Inspector Jerusha, is one to watch. Patronized by the Hegemony, Arienrhod, and the police force, she manages to hold her own against sexism and various machinations conducted by nearly everyone around her. Her struggle is a very modern one, and as a reader we root for her, since for a lot of the book she must work alone and rely on her own wits. The same goes for the thief Tor, who tried to make a life for herself and rise above the streets, and Elsevier, a female smuggler (yes, with a heart of gold). Yet while one can give the book a feminist interpretation, it is only through collaboration and both giving and receiving the strength of friendship that these women are able to survive.

I had gripes, sure. At times the prose felt a tad preachy or philosophical, and there were some lines of dialogue that sounded too planned or perfect for conversation. I also understood why Moon had to win back Sparks, but enjoyed the relationship of circumstance she cultivated with a police inspector midway through the book much better, because we got to see it develop. But it was the kind of book that felt much shorter than the 500-odd pages it spans, and the kind of book that feels before its time. It also met my expectations with the cover, with its amazingly developed females, who evolved and assumed tasking situations and roles and rose up to those challenges, no matter their societal position.