In the opening chapter, prologue really, of The Snow Queen the reader is treated to a humdinger of a setup for the rest of the book. During the planet Tiamat’s masked festival/ball, a couple sneak away to have sex in one of the side rooms, where they fall asleep from drugged wine. Arienrhod, the Winter Queen, appears with an offworld doctor to implant one of her cloned embryos into the woman’s womb. This is the genesis of Moon Dawntreader Summer, the heroine of the book. The scene is sumptuously described, with the Queen wearing the elaborate mask of an Arctic bird of prey while the doctor wears an “absurd fantasy creature, part fish, part pure imagination.” The masks and festival set the stage for the cyclical nature of the this world’s rituals and their themes of change and renewal.
In human history, the concept of a masked ritual is an old and potent one dating back to the Stone Age. In donning the mask, the human identity is subsumed by another, usually a deity or some other elemental power. Even today indigenous societies perform these rites, which, in the New World, have been subsumed by, but also influenced, the rites of their colonizers. This is the marvelous genesis of the festival season of Carnival in Brazil, the Caribbean, and other Latin American nations. These elaborately costumed parades and balls are planned all year round and grew out of the invading Spaniards’ Catholicism, where they served as a last chance for freedom and partying before Ash Wednesday’s penitence and the austerities of Lent. It wouldn’t hurt to add that the Spaniard’s African and indigenous slaves added their own ideas of religious ritual. Thus, a true mestizo event was born.
Back in Europe, the same Catholic Carnival festivities also included the indignities of food fights, street parties, mock battles, cross-dressing, clowns and circus performances, and comedic presentations where everyday norms were mocked and turned upside-down and topsy-turvy. In this it has elements of the Roman feast of Saturnalia where slaves become masters, women become men, and what is grotesque or distasteful paraded openly. Basically, a time to let off societal steam.
(In the U.S. only New Orleans, settled by French Catholics, has held on to the Carnival tradition, as the country was founded by Protestant faiths.)
Vinge’s Mask Night festivities are based on the Brazilian and Venetian Carnival models, with her festival occurring at 25 (Earth year) intervals, making it a once in a generation event. The masks are prepared and stockpiled for all this time, as the cozy scenes with Fate Ravenglass, a blind sybil/maskmaker, demonstrate. At the culmination of Mask Night the masks are ripped off, then burned or otherwise destroyed, and the participants are considered reborn.
These lesser cycles, however, are mere rehearsals for the greater cycle of The Change. This happens every 150 years when Tiamat’s seasons change from Winter to Summer, or vice versa, when the old queen is displaced and a new one of the dominant clan placed on the throne instead. Thus the tone is set for the next 150 years.
Cousin to the idea of Carnival is the Masquerade or Masked Ball, which grew out of Christmas and Carnival festivities but later became a secular event for European nobles. It arose in the late Medieval period and provided a way for the elites to bond amongst themselves and participate in sexual adventures forbidden by the strict rules of political marriages. Many romance stories over the century featured masked balls that drove the plot with intrigues of mistaken identity, and even today many YA fantasy books aimed at female readers have ball scenes that more than not feature masks, like the ones that are glued to the faeries’ faces in A Court of Thorns and Roses.
Like many high-born customs, masquerade balls eventually trickled down to the lower classes. In modern times a more egalitarian version is the Halloween costume party for adults where regular identities are concealed and new ones taken on, as well as copious amounts of alcohol and sexual posturing.
Going back to The Snow Queen, masks are referenced again in the second chapter. Starbuck, the Queen’s lover who is always at her side, always wears a mask that conceals his true identity. It’s a black one crowned with spines “like the antlers of a stag” (the same headgear that gave artists so much trouble in my previous post on the subject) that is said in text to symbolize all the power that any man could wish to wield. Starbuck wears this mask to hide his identity both from the Court (as he might be any one of them) and from the offworlders, especially offworld police, for he does the Queen’s dirty work as her liaison with the criminal elements of her world. This somewhat kinky concept is drawn by the author as being a pagan cultural element, though it’s also clear it was adapted for the Queen’s struggle with the offworlders who dominate her planet . But I’ll be coming round to Starbuck later.
Throughout the book there are other masks, both figurative and literal, by which the characters conceal their identities. Jerusha PalaThion hides behind a visored police helmet, feigning a toughness she does not feel, and Tor Starhiker is costumed as a former flame of an offworld gangster to front the casino he operates. Fate Ravenglass the maskmaker wears a mask herself, a band across her eyes that enables her to see. Moon has the most changes of identity, going from an ordinary girl from a fishing town to a sybil with a throat tattoo that acts as a mask, then an actual member of the offworld Hegemony in a fluorescent jumpsuit and navigator’s helmet; back on Tiamat she dons a scuba suit to become a human mer, and is captured by Winter nomads where her identity is confused once again. She escapes wearing an antique Winter sweater and a woolen balakava that covers her face, yet is Summer still in spirit. Later in the story she switches places with the Queen of Winter herself.
As for the male POV characters, two of them, Sparks and Herne, change into Starbuck and back with all that entails, while the third, Inspector Gundhalinu, is forced into the crucible when captured by the Winter nomads and escapes along with Moon, forcing him to alter the identity he was once so comfortable with. Though, by what happens in the next book, it wasn’t such a positive change after all.
There’s yet another connection to Carnival in the festivities of Mask Night: that of the Merrybegot.
When I first read the book and saw the word I was thrown for a loop. It seemed like a cheap and easy way to designate that Moon and Sparks were illegitimate yet exalted for it because they had been conceived on Mask Night, by male strangers. But the word, though archaic, is a real one. To analyze it, let’s look at its etymology.
In olden times merry did not simply mean happy or good-natured in English, like it does now. In the England of the Elizabethean Age it had a different connotation that included elements of being drunk and/or bawdy. To “make merry” was a different way of saying “party hearty” back then. The word was often applied to festivals like the Carnival, being used in a derisive manner by the Puritans who left England for the American colonies. In that time and place, saying “Merry Christmas” would have been the height of profanity. You see why most of the U.S. has no Carnival blow-outs like Latin America does?
As merry had sexual connotations, “merry-begot” meant a child conceived in pleasure and drunkeness who was likely illegitimate, and there was a good chance this may have happened during the revels of the merry month of May or Carnival, which in some countries began way back in November. So it makes sense that Vinge should choose it, even though it’s silly-sounding.
The Summer culture of Tiamat has a resemblance to that of Hawaiians as they do not look down upon illegitimate children and consider them part of the regular family. The book implies that being conceived on Mask Night even adds a special luck to them in that they have been blessed by the Lady, Tiamat’s sea goddess who manifests herself in the Winter and Summer Queens. As Moon is the clone of the Winter Queen, this adds another layer of cycling and genesis.
Except for the first chapter, Vinge doesn’t go into detail about what the masks look like. The most we get, as readers, is a description of the materials used, which include blue-violet beetle’s wings and orange feathers. The professional illustrators who did the book’s covers had their own ideas, ranging from genius to simple. The masks here I created using various AI art engines, and luckily as masks they can contain imperfections that would be pretty awful on a real human face!