For many years my favorite science fiction novel was The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge. The book was a comfort read for me. I had read it so often I could quote it, and given a sentence or two from anywhere in the book, I could tell what came before, and what came after. It opened the 1980s with a bang. Although it won a Hugo and much praise, today it’s mostly forgotten. Which is a shame, because it had a humdinger of a concept and a huge cast of characters that would be perfect for a multi chapter series on Netflix or HBO, with CGI bringing the book’s wilder set pieces to life.
The plot is hard to describe, but here goes.
It’s space opera crossed with fairy tale, and much of the language has a lush, fairy tale feel. Basically, it takes after the Hans Christian Anderson story of the same name: two childhood sweethearts are separated after the boy gets a shard in his eye from a goblin’s shattered mirror and is lured away by the bewitching Snow Queen to be her companion. The girl sets off North to get him back, encountering many adventures along the way, and in time the two are reunited. The boy weeps, washing the cursed shard from his eye, and the couple, now adults and ready to marry, return home.
Vinge’s tale echoes that, but it’s also the story of the Snow Queen herself, who is the ruler of a cold planet called Tiamat that is mostly sea with a scattering of islands. Mers, immortal sea mammals, live there, and they are slaughtered for their blood which can be distilled into a drug to keep humans young. The drug is what makes Tiamat valuable to The Hegemony, an interstellar empire that exploits the planet for this resource. The Snow Queen, who also the drug, wishes to end their exploitation by cloning herself and passing the crown to her clone when her reign ends. You see, each Winter Queen gets to reign for only 150 years, and then the power is turned over to the Summer clan who choose a Summer Queen. At the end of another 150 years the planet cools again, ice and snow return, and so the does The Hegemony through the local black hole that is unstable during Tiamat’s long summer. A new Winter Queen is then chosen and gets to reign again, and the mer slaughter resumes.
Of course there’s much more to the story. The clone-daughter, Moon, is raised by the Summer clan folk who she thinks are her own kin, a plot of the Snow Queen’s so she can more easily understand them. When Moon turns 17 Moon becomes a Sybil, a follower of The Lady, a sea goddess, who can answer any question put to her. Moon’s cousin and lover, Sparks, wanted to join her in being a Sybil, but when he is rejected he rejects Moon as well, and goes to Carbuncle, the planet’s capitol city where the Snow Queen lives, to seek his fortune. This all happens, or is told, rather, in the first few chapters of the novel. The plot can be thought of as a female counterpart of Frank Herbert’s Dune with the major elements turned to their opposites: a female protagonist, an icy water planet, seals that generate a vital drug and not sandworms, immortality is the product and not Spice/Melange; Sybils are the mystics and the not Bene Gesserit.
Again, it’s a shame the series never became as long-running, entrenched, and lucrative as the Dune universe, which has dozens of sequels and prequels now and several movies. There were reasons for that, and perhaps I’ll go into them later.
The story switches back and forth among a large cast of characters; it has a visual, cinematic feel, as if adapted from scripts of a series that never got made. It’s a hefty book at about 200,000 words, but the author has said the original was closer to 300,000 words, something that would not be unusual for a SFF novel today but back then was seen as taking a risk. The heavy editing, I think, created a lot of plot holes. I still don’t know how or what the Snow Queen transmitted, via a subsonic bug, to the house of the female chief of police she wanted to disgrace, or if Tor Starhiker, an everywoman character that acted as a foil to the goings-on of the high and mighty, knew her robot companion spied for the police and how long. Or what sex games Sparks, who had taken over the Starbuck role as the Snow Queen’s spy and lover, played with her and her court. I’m sure it was excised by some skittish editor.
The editing may have also contributed to the overstuffed feel of the chapters where big chunks of time are skipped or compressed and the POV characters muse about all that came before, and speculate on what might come after, as they go about their normal routine. Even back then I knew it wasn’t good writing, but again, the audaciousness of the setting and plot was so magical, it was easy to overlook. Perhaps the original version flowed better and the characters had more time to develop. I wish the author might come out with a new edition that reinstates the original material, as Storm Constantine did with the revisions of her original Wraeththu trilogy. But I don’t think that’s likely to happen.
Vinge eventually grew out of this writing habit and learned to dialogue better, something she attributed to doing movie novelizations. The improvement was evident in the following books in the series, World’s End, The Summer Queen, and Tangled Up in Blue. But for all their professionalism, they lack the magic of her first novel, and though I’ve read The Snow Queen dozens of times, The Summer Queen I read just once.
Here are several reviews of the novel, and I agree with most of their salient points.
Anyway, let’s get to the covers that have appeared the years, and see how they measure up against the actual story.
This is the original hardback cover from Dial Press, 1980. Leo and Diane Dillon’s beautiful, distinctive artwork conveys the major events of the story through the quartet of female heads. Read from the bottom up, Moon, the Queen’s clone, becomes a sybil, is crowned as the Summer Queen with a summer-themed mask by either Fate Ravenglass, its maker, or The Lady/Sybil machine herself, after which her clone-mother, the Winter Queen, is bound with ropes and cast into the sea. Read from the top down, the all-powerful Winter Queen oversees the creation of her clone who is to be the new queen. Each reading gives the story a different protagonist and perspective. On the sides are other elements of the story, the city of Carbuncle on the right and Starbuck, the Snow Queen’s lover and henchman, on the left. The artists got both of them wrong. Carbuncle has a seashell shape, while Starbuck has antlers on his helmet, not spikes (and neither did he have a jagged-tooth grinning anteater mask.) Even so, to my mind it’s still the best depiction.
This version, for a UK edition, treats the story poorly and there’s a dated, disco-era vibe to it that ends up insulting the viewer. It’s not clear at all who the struggling female character on the floor is supposed to be or why the Winter Queen is in a swing that is doubling as a bubble bath, or why Starbuck looks like a dour-faced cyborg in Ziggy Stardust boots. (Those straps going from his wrists to the back of his thighs must give him a problem when doing jumping jacks.) Again, the artist has drawn spikes on his helmet, not antlers as in the text.
The scene might be from the beginning chapter of the book, where Jerusha PalaThion, the assistant chief of police in the city of Carbuncle, confronts Starbuck as he plays Russian roulette with members of the royal court and disactivates his energy blaster. But in the book Jerusha wears a blue uniform, not tight yellow spandex, and has curly black hair, not blonde. The mystery woman might be Moon, but she never wielded a weapon in the book while crawling on the floor. Who is it?
This cover, for a later edition of the book, is OK but unexciting. The woman is Moon, her eyes blanked out as she goes into Sybil mode with a bunch of computer circuitry forming behind her. This might be one of those cut-out covers where there’s more behind the window, on the second page. I’ve not been able to find the whole painting, however.
An attractive Romanian cover showing the Winter Queen in the ornate white hawk mask she wears in the book’s prologue. The mask’s design elements don’t relate to the plot like the later Michael Whelan cover does, but they do hint at pearls, crustaceans, sea anemones, and corals, important for a planet that is almost all sea.
This Slovakian one is not bad artistically, but did the artist read the book? Arianrhod/Moon has white hair, not black, and neither one ever wore a fishnet. The artist also thought the character drank the blood of the mers directly by that bloody stain on her mouth, not inhaled the Water of Life that was made from it. And what is this setting? Holy Cow… she’s in the torch of a post-apocalyptic Statue of Liberty, with the viewpoint looking down! That’s so wrong.
The only thing this French cover gets right are the two moons, snow, and the sailboat. There were no female characters with dirty blonde ponytails hanging around in togas, especially on icy ledges where they’d freeze to death. Also, ice does not form giant crystals like quartz no matter how cold it is.
Carbuncle actually looks like a giant seashell in this Italian cover. Props for that, even if it’s a taken too literally. Nice that the artist has read the text. Even the mer has a long neck as described by the author. On the downside, Arianrhod/Moon is less than an overwhelming beauty and again, Starbucks has spikes on his helmet, not antlers. (He does have some antler-like growths coming out of his cheeks, though, I’ll give the artist that.) The rest of his outfit, a Road Warrior sinister black leather getup, is both ceremonial and utilitarian, and fits the character as described. The human figures are awkward, but overall, this covers conveys the main points of the story well.
Another British cover showing the main elements of the story, though I guess the artist hadn’t read beyond the first two chapters. Arianrhod is sleekly cruel in a white fur coat and gold crown, lounging on a red velvet divan in a pose that is… quite impossible to maintain, if that’s her right leg curled under her left one displaying her black leather boot. (The angle of the heel marks the artwork as being from the 1980s.) She doesn’t look as pale and unearthly as described in the story, however. Behind her stand Jerusha PalaThion and Starbuck. Jerusha’s alien police officer outfit is creatively rendered, looking sort of Pakistani, while Starbuck is outfitted in black leather as described. Finally, an artist has put antlers on his helmet, even if he looks more like a rhinoceros beetle than a stag. The background is nondescript — what’s a sofa doing in the middle of nowhere? — but overall, another competent illustration and a book I’d certainly buy from it.
Carl Lundgren was as famous a SFF illustrator as there was in the late 1970s and 1980s, and I remember this picture as being a popular print at the SF conventions I used to go to, where he sold it in the art halls. But is it, in fact, a representation of the book or just inspired by it? The elements are there: beautiful white-haired, white-clad Queen with a white hawk mask; a white palace; a narrow bridge, like the one that spans the palace’s Hall of Winds in the book, that is perpetually wracked by gales. But why is she floating? And who’s that beggar in the background that seems to be holding a stopwatch? He doesn’t resemble any of the main characters.
This was the only pic I found of this Japanese edition of the book. Arianrhod sits regally on her throne with a Marie Antoinette haird, while Starbuck/Sparks stands in the background. This is the only depiction of Sparks I’ve ever found. I wonder why the artist chose to show him unmasked with his red hair on view.
This French publisher obviously chose a generic naked female illustration out of Greg Hildebrandt’s back catalog instead of licensing artwork from an earlier edition of the book. The only thing correct about it is the double rainbow which occurs in one of the first chapters. Otherwise, no naked blonde nature girls playing with doves.
This cover promises action, but I’ve got no idea what it’s supposed to be. It could be the Winter Queen in a cape and futuristic snood/crown traveling in a parade vehicle. Or it might be Jerusha PalaThion in her police uniform with BZ Gundhalinu as the driver. Or it might be Moon in Ngenet’s flying machine that is taking her to Shotover Bay. Whatever, it looks sharp. The artist even did a matching cover for Vinge’s follow-up, World’s End.
Below are three sketches by Michael Whelan as he worked out designs for his covers of The Snow Queen and Tangled Up in Blue, its prequel.
This would have made a great cover, no kidding. I love how the face is childlike yet sinister.
Another cover idea from Whelan. The idea of the Queen holding the pendants is still there, but she’s supplemented with another, darker female figure who appears to be enwebbing her. Not sure who it’s meant to be.
Another sketch, with Arianrhod on her throne which has stylized icicles. Her crown recalls the kokoschnik of the Russian Snow Queens.
Rough color sketch for Tangled Up in Blue. The final went with the Queen in a more punkish look. But I wish this one had been chosen instead.
Another sketch for Tangled Up in Blue, showing the Queen in a less elaborate getup. I vaguely remember the pocket watch she holds having some significance in the story.
The final version. Notice how again she’s holding that pendant! Her outfit is regal, yet also made for scrambling around in the ruins, and alien enough to know she’s from another world.
The Whelan version of The Snow Queen. This illustration has appeared on a number of editions, and rightly so. Like the Dillon version, the story is told through elements in the picture, in this case, the designs of the Queen’s towering mask-crown. The Summer Queen has the twin illustration to this one, showing the title character looking to the left, eyes open, in a crown festooned with that story’s design elements in a palette of greens and jewel hues.
This illustration had no title, but I’m sure it’s the Winter Queen, by the hair and otherworldly gown.
This one came with no info either, but by the regal dress and hair, it’s the Winter Queen, with the red alluding to the blood of all the mers she’s killed. By her expression she’s one tough broad.
Of course, some covers don’t feature characters or story scenes at all, just locations.
A Spanish cover with a very underwhelming city of Carbuncle on it.
A much better Carbuncle that recalls a seashell without actually looking like one. A Polish edition I believe.
This French cover has got to be the laziest: a spaceship emerging from a black hole. It’s generic and says nothing about the story. Plus, the ships are described as looking like coins, not long and thin like rockets.
In my next post, I’ll be going more into the fairy tale symbolism of the story.