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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"Dust" by Elizabeth Bear

Order “DustHERE

Earlier this year I read and really enjoyed “A Companion to Wolves” (Reviewed HERE), which was co-written by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear. Sarah I’ve been a fan of having followed her excellent Doctrine of Labyrinth series (Mélusine, The Virtu, The Mirador reviewed HERE), but I was only familiar with Elizabeth in passing. So, I dug around a little and was surprised to discover that while Ms. Bear is fairly new—her first novel “Hammered” debuted in 2005, the same year she won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer—she has also been amazingly prolific producing the Jenny Casey trilogy, two standalone novels (Carnival, Undertow), the aforementioned collaboration with Ms. Monette, the first two volumes of the Promethean Age, numerous short stories, and a couple of collections. So, when I heard about “Dust” which was the first volume in a new trilogy, I thought this was as good a place as any to see what all the fuss was about and boy was I impressed…

While “Dust” is categorized as science fiction, there were actually a lot of familiar fantasy elements in the book which I found a little bit surprising, but quite enjoyable. For example, a number of medieval concepts are employed in the novel like a ruling family of nobles; politics regarding bloodlines, successors and inheritances; knights, castles, swords as the preferred choice of weaponry, chivalry, et cetera. Then there’s the story which features a servant girl who discovers she’s someone important, a couple of quests including one to prevent a war between the House of Rule and Engine, and the presence of near-omniscient angels who play the role of ‘meddling gods’. On top of that you also have Garden of Eden and other Christian references, prophecy told through a deck of cards, the appearance of a dragon, a basilisk side character and a necromancer…

In all honesty, if “Dust” had been a straight-up fantasy novel it would be hard to ignore all of the tropes that Ms. Bear uses, but because of the sci-fi setting, they actually complement the story. And that’s where things get interesting. For starters, the ‘world’ that the book is set in is actually a gigantic generation colony ship called Jacob’s Ladder, which, over the centuries, has forced evolution on its occupants through nanotechnology colonies and symbionts, resulting in the angelic-like Exalts. Overseeing this world are ‘angels’, who are actually fragments of one large entity called Israfel. The problem is that the star system Jacob’s Ladder has been orbiting is on the verge of going supernova and to have any chance of survival, the ship must be moved to a new location. In order for that to happen however, the ship has to be repaired first and all of the Israfel fragments united as one. That means war between the different remnants—namely Jacob Dust the Angel of Memory, Samael the Angel of Biosystems and Asrafil the Angel of Blades—each of whom have their own selfish objectives. Tangled up in the middle of this conflict is the exalt Percival Conn, the key to success for whichever angel comes out on top, but it’ll actually be Rien the servant girl and her companions who determine the fate of Jacob’s Ladder

Besides the fun story which mixes traditional fantasy with space opera adventure, “Dust” also features interesting characters. I liked Rien the most because she changes the most throughout the novel being Remade from a common Mean into an Exalt, consuming the memories of a Chief Engineer, and discovering a family she never knew she had. Of the other two main characters, I thought Jacob had the most entertaining scenes especially his interactions with the other Angels, and I enjoyed the struggle that Percival faced with Pinion, a set of sentient wings that act as her ‘guard & warden’. I will admit that a lot of the supporting cast including Lady Ariane, Benedick Conn, Tristen Conn, et cetera were pretty generic and undeveloped, but I was fond of Mallory and the basilisk Gavin. Additionally, there were some interesting SF concepts in the book like the symbiosis between the nanotechnology colonies and their hosts; the deadly unblades that create unhealable wounds; how Angels and Exalts can ‘consume’ others to gain memories & knowledge; and the whole idea of a ship existing as a world complete with different cities and societies.

As far as the writing, there’s not much you can criticize. “Dust” is deftly paced & plotted; the main characters are well-constructed; action scenes are dutifully exciting; and the prose is descriptive, elegant and accessible. Furthermore, Ms. Bear, like Sarah Monette, is pretty open when it comes to sexuality as “Dust” includes a Kant—an ungendered referred to as sie or hir; a hermaphrodite, and relationships that would be considered taboo in our society… In fact, the only thing that I can really complain about is the cover art which doesn’t do the book justice, but I don’t believe Ms. Bear had anything to do with that ;)

As mentioned earlier, “Dust” is the opening volume in the Jacob’s Ladder trilogy. I know that some readers don’t like to start a series until it’s been completed, but I think this book could be an exception. While the story stops at a climactic point, Elizabeth reconciles a lot of the novel’s subplots and I have a feeling that the next volume in the series is going to have a much different vibe from the first one and I can’t wait to see what happens with it :) In the end, I’m extremely happy that I finally read one of Elizabeth Bear’s novels. I’m not sure how “Dust” compares to the author’s other works, but I had a blast reading it and would definitely recommend adding the book to your Christmas shopping list…

4 comments:

Gav's Studio said...

Does any happen to know if this will be getting a UK release? Or have we let it slip by?

chrisd said...

I am intrigued by the science fiction twist of the story.

Nice review, Robert.

And since I'm here, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Robert said...

Gav, not sure about a UK release. I'll look into it though. And Happy New Year to you and to you as well Chris!

Anonymous said...

It was certainly interesting for me to read this blog. Thanks for it. I like such topics and everything connected to them. I definitely want to read a bit more soon.

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