Tag Archives: Elizabeth Bear

Chill by Elizabeth Bear

Art by Philip Lee Harvey

Chill is the second novel in Elizabeth Bear‘s Jacob’s Ladder trilogy.

[First, a complaint: it annoys me when abook in a series is not clearly marked as being part of a series. I want “Part Two of the Jacob’s Ladder series” or “The thrilling phantasmagorical sequel to DUST, with extra monsters!” clearly noted somewhere, preferably near/in the blurb or on the front cover. Would it ruin some wonderful marketing strategy? Chill does not have the words “sequel” or the phrase “Jacob’s Ladder trilogy” in the blurb or on the cover. It does mention the ship, named Jacob’s Ladder, but this tells the uninformed reader nothing about any trilogies or prequels. Information!fail, Bantam Spectra! But, hey, congratulations on having lived for 25 years.]

Dust ended with the Jacob’s Ladder barely escaping annihilation via nova explosion. Perceval had won captaincy of the ship by the skin of her celibate teeth; Rien had sacrificed herself to integrate the ship’s “angel”; the Conns were relearning the parameters of the ship’s original mission; the Ladder needs to be resettled, rebuilt, and re-mapped; the Conns’ inter/intra-warring is not yet done. Perceval and her allies – and her enemies – are incapacitated by recovery and by grief.

If I were them I’d’ve given up the day as  lost and gone back to bed.

Dust focused on the two heroes – Rien and Perceval – on their journey through the ship to prevent a war and bring their allies together to negotiate a cease-fire. Against the two women we see Jacob Dust, the ship’s sentient archive, intent on gaining complete control over the ship’s integrated AI, and control too over Perceval, to captain under his charge. But if Perceval became Captain, Rien submersed herself in the AI, integrated the fractured systems and placed the final product at Perceval’s disposal. Dust was tightly structured in the dual heroes’ quest against a single ultimate opponent who could not stand against their combined martyrdom and authority.

Chill opens the stage out to more characters, giving us a fragile fellowship of Conns and more jaded, even sophisticated points of view. Characters whom we have only seen through Rien’s and Perceval’s eyes now have their own individual voices. While it is far less romantic, it is much more interesting. Perceval and Rien (such as Rien is and was) are much more peripheral – Chill’s protagonists are older Conn relatives, whom we see through their own eyes as they try to support the ship or run after their own sister/granddaughter/etc. (the Conns are so incestuously intra-related I never bothered to keep track of who was related to whom how). This means that we have more perspectives on the events of the novel, and a greater geographic questing over the worldship, damaged as it is.

The older Conn Exalted spend far too much time naval-gazing, contemplating their flaws and weaknesses – frankly I am surprised it took until the events of Dust for someone to kill off the Conn patriarch, who was a nasty piece of shit work. Arianrhod Conn runs around with a piece of non-integrated angel, while Tristan and Benedick Conn run their separate (and later joint) quests to find her. Cyric Conn plays a ruthless hand through what must have been an extraordinary amount of planning and execution. (In many ways she and Rien are the heroes of this novel, though both of them are dead. The events of Chill are precipitated more by their actions before they died than by anything else we hear of.)

All this running around and naval-gazing has an immediately obvious disadvantage – the novel’s pacing is somewhat choppy, with no easy fix. Bear also chooses to let significant events occur in the invisible-to-readers blink of an eye, reported to us only after the fact. Those particular scenes worked better for me on the reread, because the first time I would wonder if I had skipped a page or two. Add in a monster (trailing behind Jacob’s Ladder the way daddy issues trail behind the Conns) whose perspective is narrated in the second person – look, I liked the monster, I want everyone to know that there was a monster, but the second person is not always the best way to place a monster in its alien monstrosity.

For all these prosaic flaws, Chill is still a good sequel to Dust, particularly because there are so many avenues for Grail, next and last in the series, to explore (literally and metaphorically). Chill has monsters, incestuous and murderous faux-feudalists in space(!), angels, Captains, necromancers, coincidental wooly mammoths and snakes. I would not recommend this as a stand-alone, but as the second, bridging work in a series, it is just right. If you read and liked Dust, I strongly recommend Chill.

Cover art by Paul Youll

Dust by Elizabeth Bear.

Art by Paul Youll

Dust is the first of the Jacob’s Ladder series, by Elizabeth Bear.

[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!)

Read it!

Undertow by Elizabeth Bear

Pretty Pretty Covers Make Me Happy

 I’m not sure I would have loved Elizabeth Bear‘s Undertow quite as much as I did if it were not for André Deschénez, who rules the opening paragraphs, along with the planet – Greene’s World – he inhabits. (Someone help me, I am sure I am using that verb incorrectly.) Andre is a preemptive, overwhelming response to Laura Miller’s first piece of advice: He wants, very badly, to be a “conjurer”. Currently, he is an assassin. (There is a part of me that still wishes that we got a heart-wrenching tale of the bad man who kills people who turns a new leaf and proceeds to entertain small children by pulling rabbits and doves out of hats. Alas, Andre wants more esoteric stuff.) While there are other characters in Undertow, some as or maybe even more compelling, some with agendas or their own, André’s want is the most convincing thing this story has given me. (It’s been months since I read this novel, and the scenes that stay with me are Andre’s and another’s, whom I’ll get to in a bit. This review is taking forever to get to the point, isn’t it?)

While he’s not running around killing people and trying to learn to be a Conjurer, Andre is Cricket’s lover. Cricket is an archinformist, which basically is exactly what it sounds like. Cricket, in her own turn, is at the initial stages of what might turn out to be a rewarding, long-lasting relationship with Jean-Gris and Lucienne – and they are working for the rights of Ranid, who are the native inhabitants of the planet these people all live on – corporate imperialist efficiency at its heartless, soulless best treats the native people – who look like frogs, and so are called, however lovingly or derogatorily (guess!) “froggies”.

André receives a commission to kill Lucienne. He does. Cricket does not take this well, and a lot of time is spent through the novel worrying about Andre’s degree of redeemability. (It’s his job, come on.) Unfortunately, I like André and so these moments are the ones where I flag and get irritated. While André struggles with issues of trust with Cricket and Jean-Gris (who, coincidentally, is a Conjurer, one of the best, and maybe he’ll give André what he wants, and maybe he won’t), Cricket must work with the last cache of information Lucienne sent her. (This entire planet has something like the Internet on Brain Steroids. It’s cool, but it gives Cricket a particular sort of distance which her character, given its crazy, pseudoscientific [or maybe not so pseudo] unfolding arc, would have developed anyway.)

In the meanwhile, Gourami, a Ranid who works for the human corporate overseers of Greene’s World, makes a potentially embarrassing discovery. Se (gender-neutral) is injured, endangered, on the run. So very much hangs around Gourami’s existence (as opposed to Lucienne’s non-existence) that it’s easy to see her as the focal point of the novel. Hir perspective is startlingly clear, and quietly emotional. Through Gourami we see more of the sociopolitical realities of Greene’s world than Cricket or André can outragedly shout at us.

This is a very tactile narrative, whether the Point-of-view narrator of the moment is Human or Ranid. In a story whose local plot is at least three-fourth alien, this is a very good tactic, making the R factually, sensorial alien, as opposed to simply visually and sensationally.

A lot of the future!science involves some very slick working around Quantum theory – and raises a question I have about that poor Cat. It  involves some pseudoscientific power – it’s fantasy, masquerading as science, to me (just like Star Wars! Only I dislike Star Wars). Anyway, everyone runs around like chickens with their heads cut off, or like R versions of the same (it is hard to be nasty about a race of story tellers, especially xxxx [plot device I won’t reveal] story-tellers), and the climax is an insane explosion of information, pseudo science and possibility.

So what do we have? Pseudoscience, a beautifully described, near-convincing alien race, at least two fascinating characters who keep the novel moving, a labyrinthine, Machiavellian plotline that I could not reduce down for the sake of this review, a mostly satisfactory ending, with potential for sequels. I liked it, quite a bit. If it’s around, and you have the time, you should try it.