MIND MELD: Great Books to Read During Winter
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
This week, in time for the change of season, we asked about Winter:
The first novel that leaps to mind is Geraldine McCaughrean’s The White Darkness. It’s a wonderfully bizarre tour de force about a girl, Sym, who is obsessed with all things Antarctic, including her imaginary boyfriend, the deceased Captain Lawrence “Titus” Oates. Her mad “uncle” takes her on a once in a lifetime trip there, which turns out to be a nightmare. He believes in the hollow Earth theory and that they will prove it’s true. Along the way, McCaughrean masterfully reveals more and more about Sym’s own past and her phony uncle. Sym’s voice is arresting despite how very in her own head she is—and it’s perhaps because of how that works with a backdrop that is spectacularly isolated and physically challenging. Some people may argue this isn’t a true fantasy, but I would debate them (citing spoilers), and regardless of which of us won I maintain it’d still be of interest to many genre readers because of the hollow Earth fringe science driving the plot.
One of my favorite novels opens with blood on snow, and the book takes place largely in winter. Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint is set in a decadent city ruled by louche nobles who plot over cups of chocolate and hire swordsmen to fight their duels for them. The residents of the Riverside slum watch the nobles’ boats float down the cold river under Midwinter fireworks, and gamble in pubs to keep out of the cold. Winter in Swordspoint is delicately dangerous, a society full of pitfalls for the heroes, a swordsman and a disgraced scholar.
Winter in Robin McKinley’s Deerskin is much harsher, killing cold isolated far from civilization. The book, based on the fairy tale “Donkeyskin,” sees a princess fleeing the kingdom after her father rapes her, retreating to a cabin deep in the woods in the middle of winter. While the book takes place over a greater span of time than that winter, it is in the isolated cabin in winter that the princess struggles with survival. To make it through the winter, she has to face not only the elements but the truth of what has been done to her. Although survival is almost impossible her first winter in the cabin, she returns to another winter in the cabin self-sufficient and capable of not only survival, but of choosing to return to the life she’s made away from her father. Winter in Deerskin is harsh but ultimately also healing.
My favorite winter story is a quirky one: Greg van Eekhout’s In the Late December, set in the far future in a universe on the cusp of heat death, where the immortal Santa Claus — here a sort of avatar for generosity of spirit and fellowship among sentient creatures — battles against the crushing cold of the void. (Sometimes what matters is the fight, even if there’s no chance of victory.)
Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s Home for Christmas is another story I turn to in the winter: it’s one of her stories about Matt Black, a troubled character who can talk to inanimate objects but has trouble connecting with human ones.
And I’m often moved to pick up Connie Willis’s collection Miracle and Other Christmas Stories, which includes some of my favorites of her short work — both the title story and Adaptation.
(I know, that’s a very Christmas-centric list, but what can I say? I have a five-year-old son. We talk a LOT about the holiday in my house.)
The first book that comes to mind when asked about wintry speculative fiction is The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe by C.S.Lewis, (a book I read over and over again as a child). The reader first enters a snowy Narnia through a wardrobe full of warm fur coats. The weather is the major indicator of how the things are stacking up in the story’s conflict between the White Witch and the golden Aslan. I preferred the snow. And the White Witch, even before Tilda Swinton was cast in the role.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman provides a more subtle look at the topic as we travel through the cold midwestern states, consorting with old forgotten gods and dallying for a bone-chilling subplot in the small town of Lakeside Wisconsin. But winter isn’t an obvious plot point like it was in The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe. All of the symbolic/metaphoric reasons that may underlie the seasonal setting are woven seamlessly into the backdrop to render the reader chilled and amazed.
Speaking of winter and storytelling, I love that during the cold dark year of 1816 (a freak of weather most likely caused by series of volcanic eruptions) Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and John William Polidori challenged each other to see who could write the scariest story. The result was Frankenstein (of course), The Darkness (a gruesome post-apocalyptic poem), and Vampyre (touted as the first story to bring vampirism out of folklore and into literature).
Anyways, I live in Tucson Arizona. Today it will be 73 degrees and I’m writing this with the windows open while wearing a short sleeve shirt and sandals. I’ll go for a walk in the park after lunch. Coming from so much sun and warmth, I have a special place in my heart for stories that take me to somewhere dark and cold.
With my own winter-themed fantasy novel coming out in a week you might think that I’ve got a big raft of favorite icy genre stories, but the truth is I did most of my winter reading about Arctic and Antarctic expeditions years ago. I went on a “great explorer” kick in high school and read scads of non-fiction about successful and doomed journeys into the unknown, and for a while was fascinated with Arctic and Antarctic expeditions. That particular interest waned, or I might have entire shelves stuffed full of wintry fiction.
One of my recent favorites is E.E. Knight’s Winter Duty. This installment from his long-running Vampire Earth sequence sees his main character, David Valentine, trying to retreat with the remnants of his ill-fated battalion. Allies are deserting him, elite Kurian forces are trying to surround him, and in comes a raging blizzard. Knight is a top-notch storyteller and always does a sterling job bringing the landscape itself to life. This time he does it with a winter overlay.
I may be in the minority, but I always preferred Corum to Elric in the Eternal Champion sequence. The second trilogy in Michael Moorcock’s Chronicles of Corum series is set in a snowy wasteland. These days I think all six of these short Corum novels are usually packaged together, but when I was in junior high they were sold as two books of three novels, or even six individual books. In any case, the second trilogy begins with The Bull and The Spear, and picks up long years after the first cycle, with a different threat, setting, and side characters. Moorcock does a fantastic job bringing the cold to life in this second series, but it was so heavily doom laden (like any proper Norse epic) that my junior-high sensibilities were turned off. I have it sitting here next to me; perhaps I’ll re-read it this winter.
When sword-and-sorcery and Leiber fans get together they often talk about how great Ill Met in Lankhmar is. After all, it’s the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story that got all the awards. But for my money, a lot of the best Fafrhd and Gray Mouser stories can be found in the earlier short story collection (earlier written, not earlier in the life of the characters) Swords Against Death. Boy, did I love that book. I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything as many times as I read it, not even The Chronicles of Amber. And one of my absolute favorites from that book is The Seven Black Priests, a short story wherein Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser come wandering down from a pass through a mountain range known as The Bones of the Old Ones (a name that stuck with me forever!) and stumble upon a strange cult. On one level it’s a pretty straight forward “heroes versus the evil cult” story. But it’s written by Fritz Leiber in top form. The character interactions are brilliant and funny, and the machinations of the priests are somehow hilarious at the same time that they’re frightening. The whole thing, naturally, takes place in the midst of a snowy landscape.
Lastly, I’m going to grandfather in a story from the grandfather of sword-and-sorcery, Harold Lamb. I contend that he had a huge influence upon sword-and-sorcery because the writers who created it were reading and loving his work. I love almost every story from his Cossack sequence, but one of my very favorites, from the collections Wolf of the Steppes, is Changa Nor. The main character is trapped in an icy fortress in the middle of the lake, surrounded by a besieging army. To make matters worse, his own friends are convinced that he’s a traitor. It has one of the best siege scenes ever put to paper as the surrounding army charges across the ice to challenge the handful of defenders.
Considering this question, my mind immediately goes to Barbara Hambly’s Darwath Trilogy, which is to say The Time of the Dark, The Walls of Air and The Armies of Daylight. Almost as quickly, I wonder why, since surely that story isn’t about winter as such but monstrous predatory creatures known as the Dark attacking a helpless kingdom…? So I find my copies to solve this mystery. Cursing that I don’t have time to embark on a re-read, not till all this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award books are read anyway, I quickly flick through and find that my memory hasn’t failed me – exactly.
Cold is a subtle thread in the narrative from the early pages; the beleaguered King Eldor sees disaster coming ‘as sure as the ice in the north’ while Gil, the Californian who is drawn into this world through her dreams does her best to excuse her nightmares as simply being provoked by cold feet in bed. When she and Rudi are pulled right into the Realm of Darwath, physical sensations of cold continue to manifest in parallel with fear and uncertainty while the difference between what they consider ‘freezing’ and what the locals consider a nice warm day serves to highlight how very far adrift Gil and Rudi are from home. The cold is also something we readers can all relate to; we may never have been faced with helping a mercurial wizard save an infant prince – but we all know how demoralising it is to spend a long day being cold and wet. So we’re drawn into this world ourselves through our own sense-memory. As the story unfolds over the three volumes, devastated towns and exposed wildernesses are made similarly vivid through the use of brief, telling detail of ice, frost, cold-killed plants and mud in descriptions.
Not that the locals are complacent about the weather as the realm experiences the bitterest winter in living memory, and that’s saying something after the cold and snows of recent years. So the realms’ most powerful men and women are struggling to keep everyone warm and fed and to deal with growing social upheaval and disruption caused by famine as well as the attacking Dark. Some of them do better than others who retreat into useless denial – in both cases. The thing is though, this winter is almost a worse foe than the monsters. The wizards can suggest magical strategies to fight the Dark and meantime, there is the ancestral Keep of Dare to serve as a refuge. But even the bravest, strongest warrior can die of exposure caught in a blizzard. There’s no physical enemy to defeat, is there? As a reader, we start to fret that even if the monsters can be beaten, can the realm ever recover when all its resources have been reduced to such a low ebb? How long is it till Spring? We all know that longing. How much worse must it be in a world without central heating, electric light and well-stocked supermarkets?
So that’s my (brief) take on the ‘winter’ aspects of this story. There’s more besides and even though these books are thirty years old, I’m going to stop here because SPOILERS! I see the trilogy is now available in ebook and I really wouldn’t want to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of a complex, well-characterised and thoughtful story.
When you mention that Winter is upon us, my first thought these days is the most obvious: “Winter is Coming,” i.e. George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, both in book and televisual form. So I’ll nod in that general direction, right along to the theme song which has ear-wormed me rather thoroughly at the mere thought of it. A few of my favorite wintry stories are children’s classics that I find I wish to revisit as the winter itself approaches. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, for example, with its never ending winter thanks to the White Witch. I have fond memories of Madeline L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet, set around a Murry family Thanksgiving, which has a wonderful scene in which Charles Wallace is kept warm in terrible cold by the breath of a winged unicorn. Adult books that feature winter very heavily that I’ve enjoyed most recently include Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette’s A Companion to Wolves, a smart tweak of companion-animal fantasy stories, and Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless, a stellar retelling of the Koschei the Deathless tale. Recent short works with memorable winter settings, sections, and scenes include Kij Johnson’s novella The Man Who Bridged the Mist, and Brit Mandelo’s short story Winter Scheming, both of which focus much more on the dangers than the pleasures of the season.
In all of these stories, as I read I have the overwhelming urge to curl up under a blanket with a warm beverage. I’m always certain that the protagonists will never be warm again, and therefore, neither will I. The cold and snow can represent emptiness, loneliness, and a purely physical threat. They also bring clarity of thought and intention, and great beauty to the tale.
Tad Williams, in the Memory, Thorn and Sorrow series
“They prepared the ice for you, Fengbald. I helped them plan it. You see, we are of Falshire, too.”
William’s world is desperate and doomed, fighting against the plots and treachery of ambitious men and the Storm King. Much of the action takes place in ice-locked regions, and cold and winter are used to great effect to heighten the desperation of the characters.
But my favorite parts are about the ancient Sithi and the ruins of their breathtakingly beautiful civilization , and the cold wastelands around them only heighten the colors and textures.
Phillip Jose Farmer’s The Dungeon (by Richard A. Lupoff)
“It was as if he had been struck by a solid mass of light, a pure essence of undifferentiated color so overwhelming that it forced its way past the irises of his eyes and filled his whole skull.”
Volume 6 is set in a completely frozen world, and that cold nearly radiates off of the page. I love everything in the Dungeon, but it’s fascinating to watch writers take a fairly simple environment—there are only so many things you can say about snow—and evoke it beautifully. Lupoff does it beautifully.
Mark Charan Newton’s Nights of Villjamur
A Dying Earth sort of story, eternal winter is setting in, and evil has found a gateway in the north. As food supplies dwindle and the world becomes darker, there is plenty of room for intrigue and treachery. The series starts out dark and gets more grim as it goes. The world is vast and echoing with emptiness, and the inevitability of their fate suffuses everything, yet Newton keeps it from being a depressing read with an excellent focus on the little things in life.
Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men and Wintersmith
“If I was a world that didn’t have enough reality to go around, Tiffany thought, then snow would be quite handy. It doesn’t take a lot of effort. It’s just white stuff. Everything looks white and simple.”
Tiffany seems to attract bitter weather. In Wintersmith, Old Man Winter himself becomes the villain. It’s classic Pratchett: funny, smart, sometimes unexpectedly dark, and always heartfelt.
Howard Andrew Jones’ The Bones of the Old Ones
“…towering figures of white and smaller, gliding figures that soon resolved themselves into rank upon rank of the snow women accompanied by monstrous wolves…”
Classic, exciting Sword and Sorcery, with a Middle Eastern setting. The book opens with a snowball fight!
George R. R. Martin has given one of my favorite descriptions of the difference between fantasy and the “real world”: “Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end.”
Winter has always been the season that pushed this line for humanity. It is the gateway between worlds, the transition from death into life again, and so it becomes the bearer of a most fundamental magic.
This makes it a kind of double-edged sword for fantasy stories. On the one hand there is something very right about how fantasy feels to us in the winter — it’s why the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Narnia film franchises of recent have all been loaded onto the winter season. And some of our most beloved holiday stories are urban fantasy in jingle bells — Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, A Christmas Carol.
Because winter seems to want to slip so easily into fantasy, it also seems to be rife with fantasy garbage. In this the retail juggernaut seems to have achieved an unholy hybrid of Martin’s dichotomy: perfectly decent fragrant pines dripping with polystyrene “snow”, delicate porcelain angels doused in glitter, a profusion of jellybean-colored LEDs and fiberglass reindeer.
I think that the throughline here is that fantasy is a place of extremes, and those can be sophisticated and rich or quite the opposite — rather like winter itself. “Rudolph” coexists with “Silent Night”, and “Frosty” with “O Come All Ye Faithful” (even more epic in Latin, as most things are — there’s something awesome about the idea of a “regem angelorum”).
So you might say that my favorite fantasy stories that celebrate the season have to do with the mythology of the season itself: the stroke of midnight as one year turns into another, the silent snowfall of a winter morning, the spice of hot apple cider and roasting venison. Even the best “true” fantasy stories that incorporate the winter season revolve around the intrinsic magic of the real world at this time — Victorian fantasies I think have an edge in that nobody did Christmas quite like those stodgy Englishfolk — and as fun as it is to experience the holiday in other worlds, I’m still pretty intrigued by the one we’ve got.
“This is different. It’s creepy.”
“Rubbish. It’s just a lot of snow.”
“Nobody’s ever seen so much snow before… We’re going to be buried, that’s what. It’s pushing at us…it’s horrible. As if the snow was trying to get in.”
I grew up in the South, where we consider 40 degrees to be frigid and a white Christmas is likely a sign of the impending apocalypse. Cold weather slows us down and keeps us indoors as much as possible. Around here, if there’s even the threat of snow, the whole town shuts down. Ice and snow may be beautiful, but it turns our homes into prisons until things warm up enough for it to melt away and free us. There’s always been a bit of an evil nature to snow, even if it is pretty to watch.
In Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, the winter weather becomes a character in its own right. The book is set in southern England a few days before Christmas, and Will Stanton watches the sky like any other eleven year old boy, hoping for snow for his birthday. But the dark and forbidding clouds don’t promise a few days of sledding and snow cream. The snow he wishes for in the first pages of the book becomes an enemy, targeting Will first with its weight breaking a skylight above Will’s bed, then later falling so thickly that his entire village is cut off from the outside world. Will is tasked with finding the seven Signs of Power, but his quest is hindered physically by the bitter cold and the deep snow. One reason it was important for Cooper to use the weather this way is that the ordinary folks of the village were unable to perceive the Dark and the danger they were in. Cooper needed to convey a jeopardy so pervasive that it affected not just the main players but the entire cast of the novel. The strange and frightening weather served as a way for the unmagical to experience the fear that Will and his cohorts knew. They may not have known that creatures from outside of Time were working to destroy their peace, but the villagers suffer from cold so bitter that heating systems are failing, and many have to take shelter with other neighbors just to survive. The snow becomes, for them, an equally scary event, even if they don’t truly understand the meaning behind it. The snow is heavy and terrifying, both beautiful and deadly. Like the Dark.
The answer falls into two main categories: novels, mostly action-adventure, set on frigid worlds (or frigid parts of them). The classic, of course, is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Warlord of Mars (1913) and a return to Barsoom’s frozen north in Llana of Gathol (1948). Two years after Warlord Charles B. Stillson penned Polaris of the Snows (1915), hardly as successful though it had a hardcover edition four decades later. The best of the novels is Hal Clement’s Iceworld (1963), an ingenious conceit in which an alien with a very different body chemistry must deal with the hostile, frigid climate of a strange planet (which of course turns out to be Earth).
Among the short stories, most have Christmas themes, and the weather is mostly for effect. They would include Connie Willis’ wonderful All Seated on the Ground, James Patrick Kelly’s equally splendid The Best Christmas Ever, Nuclear Family by Alex Shvartsman, and Tis the Season by China Mieville. (I’ve done a couple myself, both humorous: The Blue-Nosed Reindeer and Christmas Eve at Harvey Wallbanger’s.)
Among those that aren’t quite in either of the above categories is Bob Silverberg’s Time of the Great Freeze (1964). Fallen Angels by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Flynn (1991) has more than a little to do with ice. And of course there’s Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia Winter (1985).
The best of them all? Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, of course.
There are two distinct answers to the question. The first one is that with the weather turning colder (and even VERY cold sometimes!!!) and as it gets dark early, you don’t feel like going out. You prefer staying at home and among the other things you do to relax, you read more. Well, this is what I do. Sometimes I will spend the whole day reading a book – with only a few breaks. As regards this aspect of the winter, I don’t have any favorite books associated with the season; I read everything I like and I enjoy it more as I have more time for it. Also I live in a country where the summer is TOO hot. High temperatures make you feel weird, so you cannot concentrate too long on reading. You need to go out (often to the sea) and to sleep to cope with the heat…
Now, there are a few stories and novels that revolve around winter. Fairy tales are on top of the list. Northern fairy tales are often associated with cold and darkness and much of the plot is connected with those two elements. Think of (the most obvious) Snow White: she gets her name from the white snow. The Little Match Girl switches the matches she cannot sell to get warm (and dreams). Snow Queen by H.C. Andersen is maybe the “Lord” of fairy tales referring to winter. Hansel and Gretel are cold and hungry; they are abandoned by their parents because there is not enough food. Were Hansel and Gretel living in a Mediterranean country, at least they would not be cold, EVEN in the winter. In the Arabian Nights, where most stories take place in warm countries, you will not see many people suffering from cold or being lost in dark forests. Darkness in fairy tales is another aspect connected with winter – sometimes in a more subtle way than cold. Dark forests have already being mentioned; there are plenty of them in fairy tales. It is just a personal opinion, but I believe that even other obscure aspects of fairy tales (abandoning children; killing children; using black magic; using complicated intrigues to reach evil aims) are somehow connected with winter. So is inertia; the lovely princess who spends long years sleeping evokes the winter. It is like the sleeping Earth in the winter, represented in Greek mythology by Demeter being sad because she has to part with her daughter Persephone as this is the time she spends with her husband in the Netherworld. Like the earth, people don’t like moving too much in the winter. They do less sport outside; they spend more time at home; they sleep more. I know a few people who almost hibernate like bears (guess who?)
Dark aspects of fantasy, horror and tumultuous situations also evoke the winter. Take the Lord of the Rings: the darkness spreading on Middle Earth evokes the winter. Frozen landscapes are described in the story. Even the wars and battles so masterfully described by Tolkien evoke storms, thundering, wild rain – all of those tempests occur in the winter more than in the summer.
Stephen King’s The Shining is clearly connected with the winter: an alcoholic man has to guard a cold, isolated hotel during the three of four months of the winter. His fragile mind loses its balance under the hardships of the winter associated to a lack of entertainment and isolation.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite books. I believe that the dark aspect of the fictitious London depicted in the story has much to do with the climatic conditions of genuine London. I have often wondered whether it would be possible to imagine a fictitious version of Athens resembling the fictitious London of Neverwhere. It is not likely to create such an image of a Mediterranean city, never mind how hard you try. Even in winter, the cities of the Southern hemisphere are quite warm and crowded. The dark aspect of the wonderful fictitious London would not be suitable for Athens, even in the deep winter in a period of financial crisis.
It is almost impossible for me to think of winter stories without associating spontaneously Charles Dickens’s novels to them. A Christmas Carol is as much associated to winter as any northern fairy tale. So as stated in Wikipedia “while it brings to the reader images of light, joy, warmth and life, it also brings strong and unforgettable images of darkness, despair, coldness, sadness and death.” The same is true for the other Christmas stories written by Dickens. Even Oliver Twist evokes darkness, cold and sadness in a dark part of London and is associated to winter.
Knowing the extreme climatic conditions of the winter in Russia there is no wonder that many legends, fairy tales and folklore is associated with the cold season. Not surprisingly, many wonderful Russian writers have been inspired by the winter to write some of their most beautiful stories. The Night Before Christmas by Nikolai Gogol is a fairy tale inspired by Christmas folklore in a small village in Ukraine. The White Nights by Fyodor Dostoyevsky are about the wanderings of a dreamer in the city during the winter. Even in Crime and Punishment, the tempest in the mind of a young student who commits a murder – is evocative of the harsh Russian winters.
Speaking of Tempest: this play by Shakespeare and The Winter’s Tale refer to winter. Even Midsummer Night’s Dream evokes winter. The wild passion of Oberon and Titania is like a winter storm in the middle of the summer. Also the sovereigns of Fairyland often upset the weather in their disputes to the point that the seasons lose their typical characteristics.
Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant – one of my favorite fairy tales – Winter never quits the garden of the giant as he has forbidden to children to come and play there. This is one of the most beautiful and poetic descriptions of the winter – even though winter is caused by selfishness.
One more book that represents winter is The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers. It is about the siege of Vienna by Sultan Suleiman. This happened in the winter and the Ottomans lost because of “General Winter”.
Winter is not a season of war. So as William Blake said: “In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.” Winter is a wonderful season to enjoy reading – especially any kind of fantasy. Winter is the season of dreams. A beautiful poem by William Blake dedicated To Winter.
A nice winter to everybody!!!!
When I began The Singers of Nevya series, I wasn’t aware of other books set on ice worlds. I’m enchanted by snowy landscapes, frozen streams, icy mountains, and of course, the inherent challenge for human beings and animals who live in such an environment. The world of Nevya has been called a character in itself, which suits my vision of the story. It means there is a built-in story tension because of the difficulty of surviving the perils and hardships of a cold world where summer comes only once every five years.
Since writing those novels, I’ve become aware of Vinge’s The Snow Queen, but that book is more about the tension between winter and summer than it is about a true winter world. I’m reading The Snow Child, a new novel (not spec fic) by Eowyn Ivey, which portrays with edgy realism the hard life of winter in Alaska, where in some areas the ground is frozen year-round, making plumbing impossible and farming difficult. Ivey’s story uses the frigid weather of Alaska in 1920 to create an almost unbearable tension for her characters, and at first her snow child is like a creature of fantasy rather than one of the real world. It’s a fascinating story.
We humans are essentially naked beings in the face of harsh climatic conditions. We depend on fabrics, furs, leather, and fire to keep us alive. That weakness of ours, coupled with the inventiveness we have apparently bred for (understood thanks to Darwin, among others) provides plentiful material for fiction. In fact, I have one more novel in mind, a follow-up to The Terrorists of Irustan and The Child Goddess, which will be set on one of the five discovered life-bearing planets in that universe, which happens to be an world of ice cliffs and strange beasts–and which I can’t wait to explore!
For me, the fantasy landscape that will always be the coldest is Narnia under the rule of the White Witch. I encountered it as a child, and while some of the appurtenances of an English Christmas were unfamiliar to an American, I rejoiced at the coming of Father Christmas as heartily as the Pevensies and Mr. Beaver did.
Later, I’d find other fantasy landscapes just as wintry, such as Fafhrd’s northlands or the chilly Mountains of Madness, but none of them haunted me in the same way. I think it was the idea that Narnia was trapped in time as well as cold that frightened me. Cold and death are often synonymous in fantasy literature, with George R.R. Martin’s White Ones only the latest installment in a line of pallid, winter-skinned warriors.
My immediate reaction to this question was to run off in search of my copy of The Box Of Delights; my second reaction was to find the old BBC TV series on youtube, and watch it for the first time in decades. I am only just now emerging from my warm fog of nostalgia. Thank you.
Perhaps The Box Of Delights isn’t so much a fantasy about winter as it is a fantasy about Christmas. But when I think about winter and the fantastic, that’s what I think about. That’s how I was raised. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, too. Do parts of The Dark is Rising take place at Christmas? They must, surely. I don’t remember.
The hearth; the cold and the dark outside. There are probably wolves. It’s not proper winter without wolves. Ritual; the community huddled together. Boredom and dust and poking around the house looking for things to do. Rather frightening ancient relatives looming about. No school and snow blocking the roads; ordinary life interrupted for a moment by something immense fallen from the sky (“snow falling through the universe”). Eternal return: this happened last year, and the year before that, back into the unthinkable dark ages before you were born.
Probably my favorite novel dealing with winter is a favorite of many, if not for the planetary setting, and that’s Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, in which, of course, the events take place on the world of Winter/Gethen, locked in chill most of the year, with houses having summer and winter doors, the winter doors being on the second floor. LeGuin makes the cold palpable, and her protagonist, Genly Ai, must not only struggle in his mission to make the rival nations of Winter, Karhide and Orgoreyn, accept the coming of the Ekumen, the human community of worlds, but also fight a continual battle against the cold. The cold is so prevalent and piercing that Genly is seduced by the warmth and creature comforts of Orgoreyn, then trapped, and forced to cross the vast Gobrin ice sheet, with but one companion, in order to return to Karhide and complete his mission. Although most readers tend to focus on the nature of the hermaphroditic humans of Gethen, and the social and political complexities arising from that nature, I’ve always found the way LeGuin entwines those complexities with the wintry setting equally fascinating. For example, early in the book is the sentence: “On a world where a common table implement is a little device with which you crack the ice that has formed on your drink between drafts, hot beer is a thing you come to appreciate.”
Less than two sentences later is this: “Though I had been nearly two years on Winter I was still far from being able to see the people of the planet through their own eyes. I tried to, but my efforts took the form of self-consciously seeing a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so irrelevant his nature and so essential to my own.” Genly Ai goes on analyzing the behavior of a political figure, as to whether his performance had been more masculine or feminine, while sipping his smoking sour beer.
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