[First, a complaint: it annoys me when the first book in a series is not clearly marked as the first book in a series. I do not want the publishers to leave little clues like, for instance, an advert for the next book in the series (“And look for CHILL: The second book in the Jacob’s Ladder sequence”). Obviously a smart girl would check the inside cover, read the blurb at the back, make the connection between Jacob Dust and Jacob’s Ladder. But I am not a smart girl. I buy books for their outside blurbs and the cover page (the text under the title reads “Can a broken angel save a broken world?”); I want “Part One of the Jacob’s Ladder series” clearly noted somewhere, preferably near the blurb or on the front cover. Would it ruin some wonderful marketing strategy? Information!fail, Bantam Spectra!]
Dust is one of those wonderful stories that puts faux-feudal factions in a technologically magical future. (In space!) Rien is a servant in Rule, where the Conn family, incestuous, murderous and Exalted, are in charge. Rule is at war with Engine, and today Ariane Conn has captured Sir Perceval, who is an Exalt of Engine. The first time we see Sir Perceval she is a prisoner, bleeding blue blood (a sign that she is “Exalted” with nanogene technology), and Ariane has cut off her wings. Through Rien’s eyes Perceval is a picture of desecrated nobility, brave but broken. She is ordered to tend to Perceval and she does, and right at the start a fragile power balance is set between the two – Perceval is Exalt, an angel-demon without her wings, Rien is her caretaker and guard, later saviour. The details change, but the two maintain this equality in narrative, perspective and role throughout the novel.
To avert a war between Rule and Engine, and the disastrous loss of life that would follow, Rien breaks Perceval (who, by the way, is her half-sister) out of prison, so that the two can find their father, Benedict Conn. They travel across half the world – to be specific, their worldship, Jacob’s Ladder – to find this man, and the novel covers their Heroic Quest.
I’m a sucker for torn-off wings, but Dust gives me something even better – an entity with god-like powers who crafts a new set for Perceval. The new wings are a double-edged gift to fulfill some as yet unknown agenda. Jacob Dust is the Angel of Memory, and he watches over Perceval and Rien with a cold fondness, using the new wings as a conduit for information and control over Perceval’s body. The struggle between Rule and Engine is mirrored in Dust’s struggles with other Angels – specifically Samael, Angel of Death. The two (and others, but these are the ones we see the most) parley, negotiate, compromise and engage directly over the bodies and agencies of Rien and Perceval, who thus are Archetypes not only for their Heroes’ Journey, but for their opposed homes, their evolving social and ethical statuses, and the ultimate fate of their ship-world.
Of course, as Rien and Perceval run here, there and along to meet Benedict Conn, they meet along the way healers, necromancers, a basilisk, lost-and-found uncles, Angels, remnants of Angels, random zombies, and of course, their parents. At some point we find why precisely the worldship is so anarchic, enough of a back story to make us wonder, hunger for more, and a reason beyond “Why can’t we all be friends?” to have someone win, take over, be In Charge. The pacing is fluid without being rushed, and the two main characters (and their allies, enemies, whoever) have a very refreshing manner of moving on from unsolvable crises to the moments where they can actually do something. Their self-control is impressive but not unbelievable, and the evolution of that self-control, and their relationship, is nicely handled.
While I revel in my Medieval Fantastic Stories in Space!, I am extremely confused by overly tangled family situations or alliances, and through a combination of incest, murder, autocratic patriarchy and good old-fashioned lost history, Dust left me more than a little bewildered. At one point I made notes of all the Angels, and a family tree – while most of the details are just little red herrings added for verisimilitude and a complete back story, I found them distracting and ultimately rather frustrating, since I needed to keep a lot of trivia in mind for when they might be needed.
On the other hand, this wealth of detail made for an excellent reread, and was a factor in how very much I liked Chill, the next book in the sequence.
I ought to say something about the novel’s climactic resolution – its vivid love, pain, inevitable settlement, but I just did.
Bear’s prose tends a bit too much towards dramatic sentences beginning with “And”, but there’s no denying that she has a wonderful way of providing a material tangibility to very rarefied atmospheres. There’s a great precision to the action – both physical and emotional – and there’s no beating the final, Gothic product. (In space!)