Carolyn Ives Gilman’s brilliant Twenty Planets stories have a way of immersing the reader in complex, fictional geopolitics that are both relatable and intensely alien. I always love visiting this unique and detailed universe, and Gilman’s short novella The Ice Owl (2011) is yet another lovely, memorable episode, taking us to a harsh, tidally locked planet where life can only survive on the border of day and night. In the unforgiving city Glory to God, Thorn is a girl who has lightspeed-travelled from planet to planet so many times she’s missed huge chunks of human history in transit. Living with her flighty mother Maya in the home of Maya’s latest boyfriend, Thorn is a bright malcontent, but she finds something to grab hold of when she meets Magister Pregaldin, a peculiar elderly man who agrees to be her tutor. Thorn’s relationship with Pregaldin turns out to be a turning point in her growth, as she leverages his dark obsession with the past to forge her own way forward.
The Ice Owl is a compelling and heart-rending coming-of-age tale with an accessible protagonist, smoothly rolling prose, and a richly detailed science fictional backdrop. Its elegant, thoughtful narrative juggles multile themes and side plots that both flesh out its remarkable world and comment intelligently on our own. At this point, it’s pretty safe to say I’m a card-carrying Gilman fanboy; I hope she continues to return to this vivid and fascinating universe.