Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Dust by Elizabeth Bear

Dust (Jacob's Ladder, Book 1)Dust by Elizabeth Bear

My rating: 4½ of 5 stars
Read: 6-1-11 to 11-1-11

I really enjoyed this. I was a bit nervous starting as my experience with Elizabeth Bear has previously left me feeling kind of stupid.

I read and loved Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water, but mostly because of the beauty of the prose. I was left somewhat confused about what had actually gone on plot-wise. For that reason, while I own the other two Promethean Age books (Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth) I've never been quite brave enough to start them. I feel the same way about the Edda's Burden books, but since the first is a selection for the Women of Fantasy 2011 Book Club, I guess I'll be giving it a try this year after all.

I was first intrigued by the idea of Dust ages ago, but never actually bought it and started it. So here we are, the first month of the Women of SF 2011 Book Club and Dust is the choice. And finally, I read it.

I'm so glad I did. This time, I actually got to feel kind of clever instead of stupid. As the book revealed more and the world and plot developed, I could see the way the myth and society and near-mystical concept of the world had built out its past. And it was very cleverly done. It was almost as if the book existed on two levels, with the kind of bizarre setting of the present day imposed on the fundamental SF concepts underneath. But it is that intertwining and balance that makes the book such a good read (and so fundamentally Bear from what little of her work I've read). It would have been much less of a book if it had only been the SF tale, and I don't think I would necessarily have liked it. But having that underpinning there gave me something to hold on to and to ground the book for me. With the Promethean Age books I felt like I was trying and failing to grasp air. Here, I felt like I had something solid, and strangely beautiful in my hands, twisted into strange, reality-defying shapes.

For all the the narration switched regularly between Rien and Perceval (with side steps to other characters, especially Dust), this felt like Rien's book to me. We are introduced to the Exalt and the larger world through her eyes and that too may help provide the more grounded feeling I had with this book. Then we have Perceval's point of view to balance Rien's, and yet we find that in her own way, Perceval knows little more of the world than Rien does. So both young women find they way and we, the readers, find ours with them.

The supporting characters were less well developed I felt, but while reading didn't feel that the story was lessened by that. Yet I find I'd like to know more, especially about Tristen. Looking back, I think it is a pity those other characters weren't developed better, but there are two more books for that to happen and I'm pretty sure I'll be reading them. (In fact, when I finish this I'll be off to buy myself an copy of Chill although I don't quite know when I'll have a spare moment to read it.)

Mostly, I'm left with a feeling of something wondrous and peculiar and strange, in all the best possible ways. It's a feeling I'd generally expect to find in fantasy rather than science fiction, and this is very definitely a science fiction novel, which makes me feel like I've discovered a special treat.

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orannia said...

Fantastic review Kerry! However...I don't think my brain could cope with it ATM :)

Susan said...

I've heard so much about this author! I just borrowed New Amsterdam from the library because it features vampires :-D I'd like to read Dust, and Carnival, and I own Blood And Iron but can't tell if it's the first in the series or the 3rd......good review, and I am going to read more by this author!!! thanks, Kerry!