Our Lady of the Ice: Some fresh twists on old tropes

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Our Lady of the Ice by Cassandra Rose Clarke fantasy book reviewsOur Lady of the Ice by Cassandra Rose Clarke

Cassandra Rose Clarke’s latest novel, Our Lady of the Ice, explores a unique setting: a domed city perpetually bathed in artificial light and whose inhabitants never see the sun, moon, or stars. Human dramas, both large and small, play out against a crumbling infrastructure and swells of rebellion and terrorism. While not as tightly focused or briskly plotted as I would like, it’s an entertaining and imaginative read, especially for mystery readers who bemoan the lack of female characters in traditional noir.

Hope City, Antarctica. Eliana Gomez is a private investigator who focuses mainly on domestic cases like missing children or unfaithful spouses, advertising that “Discretion is my specialty.” One day, a stunningly gorgeous blonde walks into Eliana’s office with a simple request — recover some missing documents, which Eliana is not to look at under any circumstances. The documents themselves are relatively easy to recover, but taking the case exposes Eliana to conspiracies which affect every citizen of Hope City and, potentially, the entire world. The blonde, Lady Marianella Luna, is an Argentine aristocrat linked to city councilmen, former employees of the Hope City amusement park, and Ignacio Cabrera, who smuggles goods from South America and elsewhere. Cabrera pulls the strings in Hope City, some of which are connected to Eliana’s boyfriend, Diego Amitrano, his bodyguard and occasional thug. Other strings are connected to Sofia, an android who has secretly grown and evolved beyond her programming as a dancer and “comfort girl” for discerning patrons of Hope City’s now-defunct amusement park of the same name.

The popularity of rock groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones place Our Lady of the Ice in the 1960s; there aren’t many fashion-related hints beyond bouffants and cigarette pants, but color televisions are available, and Clarke does mention that the Hope City park opened in the 1890s and closed in the 1940s. I found it interesting that most people in Hope City speak Antarctican Spanish, while mainlanders speak Castilian, which is often regarded as “lisping” or “slushy.” The titular Our Lady of the Ice is a Madonna, dressed in furs and haloed by the sun, who protects supplicants from cold and darkness. Small details like these help to cement the novel in its own time and place, and create a sense of realism alongside steam-powered drones and the evolution of artificial intelligences.

Characters are well-written, with credible motivations and dialogue. Sofia’s unmitigated hatred of humans is as thoroughly explored and understandable as Eliana’s bewilderment in the face of that hatred, Marianella’s need to be perceived as more than a beautiful socialite, and Diego’s conflicting loyalties to the man who saved him from a life on the streets and the woman who offers a promise of something better. Clarke makes the differences between humans and androids clear early on, when Sofia hacks into a city mainframe and downloads some files, a process which is linked to specific senses like taste, sound, and odor. The similarities between the two groups, especially when more is revealed about the changes the robots have been undergoing over time, and as Diego wages an internal rebellion against his own “programming” by Cabrera, blur those dividing lines in thought-provoking ways.

Clarke provides excellent descriptions of the Hope City amusement park, long-shuttered and deep in the throes of decay, overrun with weeds and fugitive robots who hide from city-sponsored “cullings.” Lady Luna’s private dome, Southstar, and the organic grandeur of the agricultural dome are also very clearly portrayed, to the point where I could almost hear the artificially-generated wind and smell the loamy soil. But I would have liked more information about Hope City and its layout, or even the simple number of inhabitants. Are there hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands of citizens? Residential areas like Snowy Heights, the smoke stack district, and the park proper are named, but I have no idea where they are in relation to one another. Even in the few instances that a crowd is mentioned, the characters seem alone, so I was frequently left with the impression that Hope City is as empty as its park, as though there are only a half-dozen residents. At one point, a character walks from a location outside the protective main dome to Eliana’s P.I. office without once being noticed. These locations are not adjacent, and this occurred during the daytime. How would no one notice the ice encrusting the character, or their wind-burned and frostbitten skin? How did a half-frozen and extremely famous person avoid drawing any attention from passers-by? It’s possible that Clarke means for this sensation to echo Hope City’s very real isolation within the Antarctican continent, set apart and cut off from the rest of the world both geographically and culturally, but if so, she plays it too close to the vest.

Several characters mention that Hope City’s purpose is to provide atomic energy to the Argentinean mainland, but there’s no mention of how that power is manufactured or exported. I also wanted more information about how the various robots and drones are constructed and powered. Old robots were steam-powered, while modern versions have “atomics,” but I couldn’t tell you what any of that means or how it’s accomplished. Humanoid androids used to be common, but their appearance crossed too far into the uncanny valley, so new robots are spherical or egg-shaped. Androids who worked in the amusement park were programmed to respond to music, which I suspect has something to do with math, but that’s glossed over in favor of exploring Sofia’s visceral revulsion to that music and its overwhelming effects on her. Some robots have clockwork gears and pipes, some fly, and some roll; there’s a mish-mash of technologies, and I had trouble sorting it all out without being provided more thorough details. Clarke’s strengths as an author clearly lie in her abilities to relay sensory experiences, her accurate portrayal of emotions, and the philosophical quandaries surrounding self-identification and -determination. Our Lady of the Ice is written toward the reader who asks why an artificial construct would want to be its own master, and less for the reader wondering what materials are used to construct an android’s “skin” or power core.

Ultimately, Clarke’s focus on the motivations and inner lives of her characters leaves much of the outer world seemingly empty, and while the novel raises many questions regarding the value of humanity, it provides too few satisfactory answers. This was an entertaining and multi-layered mystery, but while Our Lady of the Ice has fascinating tech noir elements, it was neither “tech” nor “noir” enough to feel complete to me.

Published October 27, 2015. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union meets The Windup Girl when a female PI goes up against a ruthless gangster—just as both humans and robots agitate for independence in an Argentinian colony in Antarctica. In Argentine Antarctica, Eliana Gomez is the only female PI in Hope City—a domed colony dependent on electricity (and maintenance robots) for heat, light, and survival in the icy deserts of the continent. At the center is an old amusement park—now home only to the androids once programmed to entertain—but Hope City’s days as a tourist destination are long over. Now the City produces atomic power for the mainland while local factions agitate for independence and a local mobster, Ignacio Cabrera, runs a brisk black-market trade in illegally imported food. Eliana doesn’t care about politics. She doesn’t even care—much—that her boyfriend, Diego, works as muscle for Cabrera. She just wants to save enough money to escape Hope City. But when an aristocrat hires Eliana to protect an explosive personal secret, Eliana finds herself caught up in the political tensions threatening to tear Hope City apart. In the clash of backstabbing politicians, violent freedom fighters, a gangster who will stop at nothing to protect his interests, and a newly sentient robot underclass intent on a very different independence, Eliana finds her job coming into deadly conflict with Diego’s, just as the electricity that keeps Hope City from freezing begins to fail… From the inner workings of the mob to the story of a revolution to the amazing settings, this story has got it all. Ultimately, however, Our Lady of the Ice questions what it means to be human, what it means to be free, and whether we’re ever able to transcend our pasts and our programming to find true independence.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but recently settled in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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2 comments

  1. I have to say, I love the idea of an Antarctic Madonna!

    This setting sounds wonderful, if incomplete. I haven’t read anything by this writer, but don’t androids figure in some of her other work as well?

    • The idea of an Antarctic Madonna was ingenious — and it would have been so easy to leave a detail like that out, but the story really is enriched by its inclusion.

      I haven’t read any of Clarke’s other work, either, but my understanding is that she frequently uses androids and their quest for humanity in her work. It’s a concept which fascinates me, and that that aspect of the novel was really well done.

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