Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Now is the winter of our discontent…sort of

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Despite the chilly winds and dreary cold days of the Melbourne winter, it’s a great time to curl up with a good book. Not that I wait for such weather patterns, always having a book on the go through all the seasons.

Fittingly I suppose for the present season, I recently reread Joan Vinge’s Snow Queen Trilogy which comprises The Snow Queen, World’s End and The Summer Queen. There is apparently a fourth novel set in the same universe, Tangled Up In Blue, which I have not got around to reading or even acquired.

The Snow Queen, the first in the series, won the Hugo Best Novel Award in 1981 and the Nebula Award in 1980 and is a wondrous reinvention of the fairy tale on which it is based. Set in the far future on the undeveloped world of Tiamat it tells the story of Moon Dawntreader and her quest to win back her childhood sweetheart, Sparks. Unable to become a sibyl as Moon does, and feeling betrayed, Sparks leaves the Summer lands and travels to Carbuncle the capital city. As a sibyl, Moon attains a position of high status among the Summer people. Sibyls are keepers of knowledge that is freely available to anyone who asks. Sibyls enter a trance and by mysterious means, can answer questions.

There are plenty of twists in the plot and many other memorable characters that either help or hinder Moon in her search for Sparks, who ensnared by the wiles of Arienrhod the Snow Queen, has become her consort.

Tiamat has an interesting society. The geography of the mostly oceanic planet brings cycles of hot and cold weather as the planet tilts away from one of its two suns. The people are divided into two clans – Summers who are unsophisticated rural and sea side dwellers who worship a sea goddess called the Lady, and Winters who mostly reside in Carbuncle the capital city of Tiamat and are open to technological advancement. Both clans take turn about ruling the planet every 150 years.

Winter rules during the time when the planet is accessible to interstellar visitors who bring technology in exchange for the “water of life “, a longevity drug manufactured from the blood of “mers” an indigenous sea creature that only exists on Tiamat. The drug can halt aging indefinitely as long as the water of life is ingested and is the most valuable substance in the universe.

The action of this novel takes place during the closing years of Winter’s reign which will culminate in a festival where the new Summer Queen is elected, and the old queen is thrown into the sea as a sacrifice to the Lady. Arienrhod has other ideas however, and Moon is central to her bid to extend her reign, being her clone and mirror image.

World’s End concentrates on BZ Gundhalinu who was a major character in The Snow Queen, an off-world police officer doing a tour of duty on Tiamat who at the end of Snow Queen returns in disgrace to his home planet Karamough which is the ruling planet in the galactic empire. In this novel he achieves redemption through a surreal of Heart of Darkness journey to World’s End on the planet Four, ostensibly to search for his lost brothers. What he finds at World’s End will change his life forever.

The Summer Queen follows on directly from the end of The Snow Queen and again focuses on Tiamat. It is an even more engrossing read than The Snow Queen and introduces the fascinating new character Reede Kallervo, tortured genius and brilliant biochemist.

This is a big novel, in both pages (900+) and plot. It unravels in a leisurely fashion and slowly builds up to a stunning and totally satisfactory conclusion. There are three main narratives in the novel, the first of which focuses on Moon, ruling as Summer Queen and her push to advance her people in developing their own technological independence before the planet becomes accessible to off planet interference again, and her determination to save the mers, who she alone realises, are a vital key in the maintenance of the sibyl network. Little does she know when she begins her rule, that B Z Gundhalinu (another thread) has discovered a source of smart matter at World’s End, capable of driving star ships and therefore opening up the universe, including Tiamat, to interstellar exploitation.

The third, and possibly the most interesting narrative thread, follows the exploits of Reede Kullervo, tormented by memory loss, enslaved by an unscrupulous and evil crime boss, through his dependence on a drug he calls the water of death which is fact his own failed attempt to create an artificial water of life.

All these various threads intertwine and meet in an end game that keeps one guessing until the very last page.

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Since finishing these books I have read Four Freedoms, John Crowley’s wonderful new novel. It is set in an aircraft factory in Oklahoma during World War 2, and captures the period wonderfully. It is a novel of great warmth, charm and humour and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I really feel I should read it again before attempting to review it as I read it sporadically on the tram to and from work, and at night. A new John Crowley novel is something to be celebrated, and this latest work of his is possibly his most straightforward novel yet, but nonetheless beautifully written, with a cast of great characters, particularly the unusual hero, Prosper Olander and the women who cross his path.

I’m feeling spoilt after reading Four Freedoms, having the new A S Byatt novel The Children’s Book, to settle into. I started it on the weekend and am enjoying it immensely. It’s a rare treat these days to have two first class new novels by favourite authors to read successively.

I’m also reading a new Jacqueline Carey paperback, Kushiel’s Mercy, on my daily commute. Carey is one of my guilty pleasures. She writes marvellous ripping yarns in the heroic fantasy vein with apparent effortlessness. I’ve read all the previous Kushiel’s Legacy novels, so just had to read the latest novel in the series. She also wrote the unusual Sundering duo of novels, Godslayer and Banewreaker a kind of alternate Lord of the Rings, where the dark side are the goodies, or at least the side that most gains the reader’s sympathy.

3 comments:

Clare Dudman said...

Sounds like a good reading session. I'm just wondering if (i) Jaqueline Carey is related to Peter; (ii) if the sybil in the trilogy inspired the Sybil in Jeff VanderMeer's 'Shriek'. I guess I could ask him.

Kay said...

I got as much pleasure reading your reviews as from reading the books themselves, I am sure! (But am tempted to read the writers you've mentioned - AS Byatt being the only writer whose books I have read previously.)

Anne S said...

Clare: Jacqueline Carey is not related to Peter Carey as far as I know. She's American and he's Australian.

The sibyls in the Snow Queen universe are infected with a smart matter virus that gives them direct access to a hidden computer database. The Sibyl in Jeff's "Shriek" would not, I'm sure be inspired by the Vinge books.

Kay: I'm glad you enjoy my reviews. You would probably love John Crowley's novels. His best known novel, Little, Big is the one to start with. Crowley is an exquisite prose stylist.