Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre (2008, but originally published in 1978) – First of all, I’ll admit to being a big Vonda N. McIntyre fan since I read this in the seventies and loved it. It’s one of her earliest works (and a Nebula and Hugo winner). I’ve always enjoyed her Star Trek movie adaptations and consider her to be one of the best writers around.
In this post-apocalyptic world (it might be Earth or it might not), Snake, a healer who uses snakes who ingest medicines and inject patients with their venom to inoculate and cure them, is in dire straits. Her dreamsnake, one of a trio including an albino cobra capable of curing cancerous tumors and a rattlesnake, has been killed by members of a tribe she was trying to help. Even with the apologies of a handsome tribesman, Arevin, Snake is crushed and fears her time as a healer has ended. Dreamsnakes are very, very rare, and a healer can’t be a legitimate healer without one. These small snakes assist terminally ill patients in passing on painlessly, and Snake lives in fear that someone will need a dreamsnake without her having one.
Leaving her new boyfriend behind, Snake sets off to return to the healers to explain why she allowed her dreamsnake to die and beg for a new one. Crossing the deadly desert with her tiger-striped pony, a graduation test to see if she could manipulate DNA well enough to create a new species, she reaches a land where the mayor/king is dying from gangrene. Using her amazing snakes, she’s able to heal him but becomes entangled in the lives of the son/prince who cannot control his fertility and a young stable girl with burn scars who cannot defend herself against her master.
To save the mayor by forcing him to let Snake’s snakes heal him, the son agrees to leave the kingdom since his reputation as an uncontrollable casts shame on his father. Snakes shows him a few things and sends him off to school to learn how to control his fertility. Melissa, the scarred stable hand, is more difficult to rescue. Snake demands her payment for curing the mayor not as gold but as the adoption of Melissa. She intends to take her and give her a chance to become a healer. Her master isn’t pleased, but when it’s revealed what he’s been doing to the girl, he submits to perversion rehabilitation, and Snake and Melissa again enter the desert.
They’re attacked almost immediately by a “crazy” who has been following them. He says he knows where there are lots of dreamsnakes in the broken dome used by the albino called North. Changing her plans to return home, Snake and Melissa set out for the broken dome, lead by Crazy who is disappointed Snake has lost her dreamsnake. Apparently, they can be used as an opiate and not kill, and he’s horribly addicted.
Meanwhile, back at the original tribe, Arevin decides Snake is worth going after. He tells himself he’s going to apologize to the healers for his tribe’s unreasonable destruction of Snake’s dreamsnake and prove it wasn’t her fault, but really he’s just been having dreams about the one that got away. He sets out to follow Snake.
At the broken dome, Snake discovers the secret of why the little alien snakes don’t reproduce in captivity and why North doesn’t have problems with trespassers – he dumps them in a pit with hundreds of dreamsnakes until they are bitten and addicted. Poor Melissa is dumped in first, and Snake – impervious to their venom – struggles to save her.
Arevin, meanwhile, has met with the mayor/king and the leader of the healers but is no closer to finding Snake. In fact, they suspect he might be the crazy pursuing Snake. They tell him of a southern pass that might still be open from the desert storms this late in the season, and he sets off, hoping to catch Snake before she runs into any more trouble.
Too late, Snake battles North to rescue Melissa and somehow get information about the true nature of the dreamsnake reproduction to her people before all dreamsnakes are gone and there are no more healers.
If you think Arevin arrives just in time to save the day, you’ve not been paying attention. Snake is not that kind of damsel. She’s more than capable of taking care of herself and Melissa and carrying a sack of dreamsnakes for her people to save the world.
Really, I enjoyed this book as much forty years later as I did when I first read it. Vonda was really ahead of her time with strong female characters. Truth be told, this hero could be either sex and still be as interesting and unique. I had the feeling Arevin was added on later to give the book volume, but he’s a nice addition, and I was pleased to see Snake have a fan and an opportunity for happiness.
Well done, Ms. McIntyre.