The Magic of Winter Worlds
Recently I posted my poem “North” here, and alluded to a journey into the far north of Sweden, to Arjeplog just south of the Arctic circle, which inspired it.
Again recently, I have begun reading Australian author Jo Spurrier’s debut Fantasy, Winter Be My Shield, first mentioned under “Just Arrived” here — and these two posts got me thinking about what a great tradition winter worlds are in Fantasy-SciFi.
Here are a few of my favourites:
The Narnia of CS Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, of course. I have think that moment when, together with Lucy Pevensie, I stepped through the back of a wardrobe and into the snowy landscape of Lantern Waste was definitely one of the most magical of my reading childhood.
As an adult, Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness provided a similar defining moment, with the physical world of Winter (Gethen) absolutely dominating the cultural, sexual, and political landscape of the story.
From there, I moved on to Michael Scott Rohan’s “Winter of the World” series (the first trilogy comprises The Anvil of Ice, The Forge of the World, The Hammer of the Sun), in which the encroaching ice (think ice age) is an aware power and the Norse myth influences on the storytelling — perhaps fittingly given the world — are strong. (Just in case you’re wondering, I think this is a good thing and the series a very interesting, if at times grim, one.)
And then there’s Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale — which is more like historical urban fantasy (meets the Gangs of New York) and is rich, mythic, magic realist imbued — and where winter undoubtedly ‘colours’ the entire story.
More recently I’ve read Kate Elliott’s Cold Magic (the first of a “Cold’ trilogy) which also picks up the idea of an ice age realm where the ice influences magic — but in a world where alternate history means the Carthaginians fought the Romans to a standstill, retaining their maritime empire, and North African (Mali) magicians have emigrated (ahead of a ghoul/zombie horde) to hook up with Celtic druids, I think you’ll already be getting that the story is going very different places to Michael Scott Rohan’s ice…
Nor should stories such as Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow be overlooked, if only for the wonderful descriptions of winter and snow; this is a very atmospheric book. And how could I forget Joan Vingt’s “The Snow Queen”? Short answer, I can’t—again it’s a favourite novel and one where the prolonged winter world of Tiamat, but also the imminent transition to an equally prolonged summer is essential to the story being told. Picking up on extended winter/summer worlds again, “Winter is Coming” in George RR Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, even if it is not quite here yet — but the giant wall of ice and the Night Watch definitely set the scene from book one, A Game of Thrones.
And now I am reading the new Jo Spurrier epic, Winter Be My Shield, where winter and snow also dominate the world building.
There are also distinctive winter elements to wider worlds, such as the Winter Country in my own “The Wall of Night” series, and the north of the Finnish witches and panzer bjorn in Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass.
The more I think about it, it seems fairly clear that winter worlds hold an enduring fascination, so now I’m thinking about why that might be… In part, I suspect it is because winter landscapes and worlds are so dramatic, stark and elemental. Physically, they challenge us — and the white on white of snow worlds is also a very strong aesthetic.
Can you think of other reasons for their enduring popularity in Fantasy-SF or literature generally?
And what are your great winter worlds that I’ve missed mentioning?