Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Here’s a tip: if you want to disappear and assume a new identity, don’t befriend children and become their mentor. Inevitably they will discover you have a mystery past that you don’t want to talk about. And children are really, really good at uncovering things adults don’t want them to know. It’s like a sixth sense most of us lose at puberty—the moment an adult evades a question, the child files it away under, “I will ransack your house and break into your puzzle box later.” So whatever you do, avoid children. They are the enemy.
Master Pregaldin doesn’t listen to this advice in The Ice Owl. It’s not necessarily his undoing, but I think it might have helped. Of course, The Ice Owl isn’t about Pregaldin—and it’s not even really about the eponymous owl, though there is one. It’s about Thorn, a girl who is mature beyond her years because of all the time she has spent being shuttled around the galaxy at the speed of light, her somewhat less mature mother in tow. Thorn is an answer looking for a question, someone with smarts but not much in the way of guidance over even an interesting problem to solve.
The setting of The Ice Owl is almost invisible, although the politics are important to the plot. Thorn is not indigenous to this city, which exists on the terminator of a tidally-locked planet and is undergoing a … disagreement of leadership. A puritanical religious sect is poised to take over, which would be bad for the class of society to which Thorn and her mother belong. But what can they do? As they wait for the inevitable to happen, Thorn befriends Master Pregaldin and badgers him until he agrees to become her teacher. They learn a lot from each other, and he gives her the rare—perhaps unique—hibernating ice owl. What a dumb move. Carolyn Gillman might as well have etched, “This thing is doomed” to the side of the owl’s refridgeration unit.
The coup eventually happens, and Thorn and her mother have to evacuate post-haste. But Thorn has changed, and now she isn’t always in solidarity with her mother. She tries to leave her mother behind, go on to another planet, one connected to Pregaldin’s past—but a mutual friend comes to get her, reunites her with her mother, and we all learn the true meaning of family. Or something.
To be honest, the whole resolution of this story vexed me. It didn’t make much sense, in my opinion, and was too rushed. Gillman seems to spend the first part of this story talking about one thing—Thorn’s isolation, her autonomy, her thirst to do something with her life—but then changes gears and makes it all about Thorn’s relationship with her mother, her responsibilities, her premature ascension as head of the household. It’s … messy.
Despite these flaws, The Ice Owl really does strike me as a work worthy of the Hugo nomination. It is science fiction in that most wondrous of senses: rare species as metaphors, big ideas writ small in the background instead of in our faces, and characters who are like us—with pasts lingering behind them, and futures stretching ahead, and motivations spanning the gap between. It’s not a brilliant story, and the conflict is tepid to say the least—but as a short work of fiction, it’s all right.