Monday, August 31, 2015


DreamsnakeDreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second time I've read this book, though the first time was over 30 years ago, so I didn't remember anything other than the fact that I really liked it. Having just seen Vonda N. McIntyre on several panels at WorldCon (the world science fiction convention) I was prompted to reread this classic. And I'm very glad I did!

The book is set in a post-apocalyptic future on earth (hints as to a nuclear holocaust, but there are also references to aliens) where our protagonist, a young healer named Snake, is out on a journey to remote areas, as sort of a traveling country doctor. The unique thing about her healing is that she uses snakes as a medium for medicine delivery. Through genetic manipulation, healers have created snakes that metabolize various medicines. A bite from one of these snakes injects the medicine instead of venom. (Healers also provide vaccinations via a more typical mechanism.) Healers also have a special snake, called a dreamsnake, that is alien in origin, and whose bite is used as a painkiller and a sedative. This snake is important in helping patients during treatment, and also in helping patients who are dying, so that they can die in peace.

We first see Snake among desert nomads, treating a boy with a cancerous tumor. She starts one of her snakes on the process of metabolizing a cure, which will take several hours. She leaves the dreamsnake with the boy to ease his pain and keep him from being afraid. She goes outside to rest, and meets a young man from the tribe, named Arevin. When she goes back in, she discovers that the boy's family killed the dreamsnake because they were afraid of it. Since dreamsnakes are alien in origin, and healers don't know how to breed them, the loss of one is a terrible blow. Because of this, Snake fears she will no longer be able to be a healer. The rest of the book is about her journey to find more dreamsnakes.

I liked the mix of primitive (nomads living in the desert, riding horses) and advanced (genetic manipulation, alien contact) and it all seemed very believable. The only thing that was a bit weak was the immediate love between Arevin and Snake. They really only had a couple of conversations together, but somehow fell deeply in love - so much so that Arevin risks his life in trying to find Snake after she leaves his tribe.

The storytelling is otherwise quite strong, with interesting characters who have believable motivations. This is definitely a page-turner, as Snake gets closer and closer to finding the truth about dreamsnakes. And her relationship with Melissa, a little slave girl whom she frees and adopts, rang quite true.

I was pleased to see that a book from decades ago doesn't show any signs of aging or of feeling outdated. There are no old-fashioned prejudices or cultural references. Like Dune, the world in this book stands outside of time and culture, while its themes of trust, fear of others, and perseverance against all odds are still relevant to our current day. This is a rousing good story, with a strong female protagonist that anyone can relate to.

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