The Snow Queen (Vinge novel)

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The Snow Queen
Cover of first edition (hardcover)
AuthorJoan D. Vinge
IllustratorLeo and Diane Dillon
Michael Whelan
Cover artistLeo and Diane Dillon
CountryUnited States
SeriesThe Snow Queen Cycle
GenreScience fiction novel
PublisherDial Press
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
AwardHugo Award for Best Novel,
Nebula Award for Best Novel,
Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel (all 1981)
LC ClassPZ4.V78 Sn PS3572.I53
Followed byWorld's End (1984) 

The Snow Queen is a science fiction novel by American writer Joan D. Vinge and illustrators Michael Whelan, and Leo and Diane Dillon, published in 1980. It won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1981,[1] and was also nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1981.[2]

Based on the fairy-tale of the same name by Hans Christian Andersen, The Snow Queen takes place on a mostly oceanic planet called Tiamat, whose suns orbit a black hole, which facilitates a type of interstellar wormhole travel and connects Tiamat to the rest of the civilized galaxy (the "Hegemony", the remnants of a fallen Galactic Empire).

Plot summary[edit]

The residents of Tiamat are split into two clans: "Winters" who advocate technological progress and trade with offworlders, and "Summers" who depend on their folk traditions and rigid social distinctions to survive on this marginal planet. Every 150 years, the sun's orbit around a black hole dramatically impacts the planetary ecology. To keep the uneasy peace, the government switches between Winter rule and Summer rule, under a matriarchal monarch. Interstellar travel between Tiamat and the Hegemony is only possible during the 150 years of Winter rule, and a single woman rules the entire planet: a "Snow Queen" in Winter, a "Summer Queen" in Summer.

The Hegemony's interest in Tiamat has to do with the "mers", sentient sea-dwelling creatures whose blood provides the "water of life", a virus that halts the aging process. Mers are hunted as frequently as possible during the Winter years, to the brink of extinction. The "water of life" allows a single Snow Queen to reign for the entire 150-year season, and it is with the Snow Queen, Arienrhod, that the story begins. She has secretly implanted several Summer women with embryonic clones of herself, in the hopes of extending her rule past her ritual execution at the end of Winter.

The novel follows Moon, the only one of these clones to survive to adolescence. She and her cousin Sparks are lovers, and both are "merry-begots", conceived during the planetary festivals held every 20 years to remind Tiamat of the cycle of power. Moon becomes a sibyl, a position of high status among the Summer people, since they are keepers of knowledge freely available to anyone who asks. Sibyls enter a trance and by mysterious means can answer questions. Sparks, unable to join her among the sibyl mystics and curious about his offworld heritage, travels to Carbuncle, Tiamat's capital, where he is immediately caught up by Arienrhod and eventually becomes the "Starbuck": her consort and commander of the mer hunts.

Moon receives a message, apparently from Sparks, urging her to come to Carbuncle, though the city is barred to sibyls. On her way, she becomes entangled with smugglers and is taken off world-—a one way trip for a Tiamatan citizen, as the Hegemony forbids Tiamat full access to their worlds. She is taken to the capital planet, Kharemough, and discovers that the Winters' prejudice against sibyls is a political tool used by the Hegemony to preserve its control of technology on Tiamat. Sibyls are highly respected throughout the other planets of the Hegemony; only on Tiamat, due to a careful reinforcement of superstitions during the reign of Winter, are they considered dangerous and mentally unstable. Eventually, despite the waning window of safe travel offered by Tiamat's orbit, she negotiates a return after finding out from a trance that Sparks is in danger.

After a crash landing and short sojourn as a captive by an outback tribe of Winter fugitives in the north, Moon returns to Carbuncle and confronts Arienrhod for the fate of her beloved Sparks. Here she discovers the truth of her heritage and that Arienrhod considers her a failure; she wanted a clone in spirit, not just in body, a clone who would keep the Summers from rejecting technology (throwing all imported devices into the sea) at The Change. Moon proves her wrong by participating in the ritual competition for the Summer Throne, and winning. The Change will proceed, and Winter will end-—but with an enlightened queen, preparing Tiamat to face the Hegemony as a peer when the 150 years of summer end and interstellar travel is again possible through the black hole.


Vinge also wrote a sequel to The Snow Queen called The Summer Queen (1991), with a novella, World's End (1984), linking the two. A third novel, Tangled Up In Blue, was published in 2000.

Critical reception[edit]

Vinge’s novel was well received when it initially came out. Reviewers have admired the complex world-building Vinge created with the planet of Tiamat and the Hegemony calling it a “carefully crafted universe”[3] and “impeccable and expansive”.[4] Reaction to the characters and plot have been mixed. Some reviewers have seen the characters as “distinctive and believable”[4] while other reviewers have felt the characters too casual.[3] The plot has been called “fast-paced and eventful”[3] and “the kind of book that felt much shorter than the 500-odd pages in spans”[4] but also frustrating as “the love story holds very few surprises"[3] being based on the Hans Christian Andersen story. Some have said the book “feels before its time”.[4]


  • Russian: "Снежная королева", 1995, 2003.


  1. ^ "1981 Hugo Awards". Archived from the original on May 7, 2011. Retrieved November 18, 2013.
  2. ^ "1981 Nebula Awards". The Locus Index to SF Awards. Archived from the original on June 5, 2011. Retrieved November 19, 2013.
  3. ^ a b c d Aragona, Mark. "Book Review: The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge". Digital Science Fiction. Archived from the original on January 13, 2014. Retrieved November 18, 2013.
  4. ^ a b c d Mansouri, Tia. "Judging a Book by Its Cover: The Snow Queen". Fantasy Matters, University of Minnesota. Retrieved November 18, 2013.