This is a collection of six mystery novellas and novelettes featuring Abigail Irene and Don Sebastien, and it is an excellent place to start with Eliz...moreThis is a collection of six mystery novellas and novelettes featuring Abigail Irene and Don Sebastien, and it is an excellent place to start with Elizabeth Bear. It is one of her most accessible works, so if you can find a copy of it (not necessarily easy, with small-press releases) and enjoy quality prose and characters, I strongly recommend checking it out.
The novellas are sequential and build on one another, so the collection should be read in order. It starts as Don Sebastien leaves the Old World for the New on a zeppelin, having shed all his court but one Jack Priest, his ward. Vampirism is illegal in the British Empire, so Sebastien takes care that no one suspects his true nature, and when one of his fellow passengers goes missing he is forced to solve the mystery quickly, for fear that when the zeppelin arrives at New Amsterdam the captain will call in Detective Crown Investigator Abigail Irene, whose reputation is known across the Atlantic.
Don Sebastien and Abigail Irene don't meet until the second novella, when Sebastien horns in on a particularly chilling murder in his new home of New Amsterdam. While her quick acceptance of a place in his court comes out of the blue, they have immediate chemistry as people with a stricter moral code than is usual for their positions and a particular enjoyment in circumventing (or ignoring outright) Victorian moral conventions. They also make an excellent detective duo; Sebastien does more of the traditional detecting (interviewing suspects, having contacts in all corners of society that can provide information) while Abigail Irene's credentials as a forensic sorceress make her a turn-of-the-century magical C.S.I.
Each mystery they solve together deepens our understanding of the alternate world they live in; we are introduced to many sectors of a fairly complex society where magic and technology are intertwined and creatures of the night are just one of many oppressed classes. Impressively, every single mystery is fair -- while I only guessed one of the conclusions correctly, I was able to find the clues in each story after the reveal. Bear is never exactly an easy read, as she does not spoon-feed her world to the reader, but this collection is much less dependent on the reader catching every single reference than Blood and Iron was. I was left wanting much, much more set in this world; I'm grateful that it's followed by Seven for a Secret and The White City and hopefully many more.(less)
Very much in the mode of the final novella in New Amsterdam, Seven for a Secret gets a bit more into the alternate history aspects of Bear's steampunk...moreVery much in the mode of the final novella in New Amsterdam, Seven for a Secret gets a bit more into the alternate history aspects of Bear's steampunk world and is tinged with quite a bit of melancholy. Seven for a Secret is more thriller than mystery, and even if there's nothing particularly unique about either Bear's vampires or her steampunk alternate history, it's all well done and the characters and their relationships are superb. They're wonderfully complex through the spare prose, and I hope to someday see more from them.(less)
The world Jacqueline Carey has created with this series continues to have a great deal of beauty and grace about it in this seventh novel. Her charact...moreThe world Jacqueline Carey has created with this series continues to have a great deal of beauty and grace about it in this seventh novel. Her characters are still fully-fleshed and wondrous, each one unique and each one worthy. Like the first books in the other two trilogies, this one starts at the beginning of its heroine's tale, and many people may find it slow going at first, for Moirin's journey to her destiny does not really start until she leaves for Ch'in 2/3 of the way through. More than the others, this one feels like the first book in a trilogy, despite its excellent resolution. Nonetheless, Carey remains one of the strongest authors in the fantasy genre today.
I must admit, however, that I begin to suspect she has already created the greatest protagonist she has in her in Phedre. Imriel and Moirin are both beautiful souls, and I follow their journeys breathlessly, continually delighted by their passion, their integrity, and the myriad ways they are nothing at all alike and yet still equally worthwhile as fantasy protagonists. But both fall far, far short of Phedre in one important respect: Phedre, even as a child, was always thinking about her situation and moving in ways to make what she wanted happen. Even when she was an unwitting tool of another character, she was the one performing the actions and in that way always ended up with the upper hand. Both Imriel and Moirin, admirable though they are, are not always the active movers of the plot. Imri is driven by his haunted past; Moirin is driven by her diadh-anam, and while both have plenty of their own will, they spend much of their novels trying to glean what they should do. Phedre always knew what she should do, even though the way to do it might be obscured, for she carried her moral compass within herself rather than looking outward for it.
Perhaps this makes Imri and Moirin more realistic or approachable as characters, but they are not quite so romantically heroic as Phedre was, and that leaves me wanting just the tiniest bit more.(less)
I am very sad to say this is my least favorite novel of Terre d'Ange so far. This is partly because of the theme Carey is exploring in this novel, but...moreI am very sad to say this is my least favorite novel of Terre d'Ange so far. This is partly because of the theme Carey is exploring in this novel, but mostly because it simply does not measure up to the rest of the series.
Don't get me wrong -- I love this world with a deep and abiding passion, and I will buy the novels in hardcover the day they come out as long as Carey writes them. But this, the third trilogy set in the world of Terre d'Ange, is simply less powerful than the two trilogies that came before. It is less focused. The books are less focused than either Phedre's or Imriel's -- while the first six books in this series had definite beginnings, middles, and ends (that nonetheless contributed to the larger three-book story arc) both Naamah's Kiss and Naamah's Curse have minor endings that are clearly just pauses in the action rather than true endings to a book-long story arc; and Moirin herself is less focused -- she is seeking her destiny, but the only guideline she has is that she will cross many seas, so she just kind of wafts through the world waiting for her diadh-anam to flare up and let her know that this is a place she's supposed to be for a while. That passivity stands in stark contrast to Carey's best heroine, Phedre no Delaunay, who always had a sense of purpose and urgency to whatever she set her mind to. (Phedre also thought before embarking on any action, while Moirin just kind of jumps into bad situations and then goes "Ooops! I guess I shouldn't have done that.")
And the fact that I kept comparing the two protagonists to each other is symptomatic of the flaw in this book as well. They are both female first-person narrators in the same world, and Carey's skill is not so great that she gave them very distinctly different voices, so some comparison is natural. But in this book I have become convinced that Carey is deliberately comparing them to each other in her own mind, because so much of the action of this book echoes the action of Kushiel's Avatar, the third (and best) book featuring Phedre. Both books range into non-European lands (in Avatar it was Africa; here it is Asia); both books feature the protagonist's soul being made a battleground of the gods; the protagonist is tortured in both books as a part of that battle. (There are other parallels, but they would constitute spoilers for this book.) And at each point where there is this echo of the earlier heroine, Carey makes Moirin make the opposite choice.
Obviously, she did this to ensure that Moirin is NOT just a Phedre clone; but simply making Moirin the reverse of Phedre does not make a unique heroine -- being the anti-Phedre is no better than being Phedre-lite. She even gave Moirin an anti-Joscelin in Bao, and reversed the way their relationship worked -- in Kushiel's Justice Phedre drove Joscelin away, while here in Naamah's Curse Bao drives Moirin away through his actions and the difficulties they cause.
But the anti-Phedre trend continues even to the thematic level, and this is the point that I have to give the caveat: the theme Carey chooses to explore is well-executed, so I cannot say that the book is bad as a result of it; it simply is not to my taste, and so I disliked the book a bit as a result. In all the Phedre books there was an underlying theme of the gods' battles being worked out through their human followers -- Melisande is acting out her Kusheline nature in playing the game of Kings, and the battle between her and Phedre in the first two books emphasizes that the gods have created the battle and the battleground, and the humans are simply acting in accordance with their natures; the Mahrkagir, in the third book, is also acting as the avatar of a god, and Phedre is cast against him by her own gods. I loved this theme, because it allowed the human characters (even the villains) to be human, heroes of their own stories even as they are the villains in ours, while not at all lessening the visceral impact of the good vs. evil battle.
Here in Naamah's Curse, the theme itself is reversed. Instead of the humans acting in accordance with their gods, this novel is all about the ways humans can twist their gods to their own ends. The Khan of the Tatars, the Yesuite Rebbe, the Falconer and the Spider Queen -- all of them preach a twisted piety to serve their own human needs for power. And this made the book ugly to me. The battles between the gods had a certain purity to them, a sense of larger-than-life figures and motivations beyond our ken; the battles here are purely human ones despite all the talk of gods, and there is nothing pure about that. It is the darkest of the novels of Terre d'Ange to date, despite the fact that darker things happen in ALL of the other novels, and that made it hard for me to take it to my heart.
Still, anyone who has read the other novels has to read this one, and will have to read the next one as well to find out what Moirin's destiny finally is. And to show one way Carey has improved over time, this novel did at least have more humor than all the others combined, as well as the best one-liner ever, and one that echoes off the Phedre novels in all the right ways: "They say the gods use their chosen hard. Apparently, the gods are part of a vast conspiracy to share their chosen, too."(less)
The first novel I picked up by Jo Walton was Tooth and Claw, a fun Austen-esque romantic comedy of manners with a twist: all the characters are dragon...moreThe first novel I picked up by Jo Walton was Tooth and Claw, a fun Austen-esque romantic comedy of manners with a twist: all the characters are dragons, and all of VIctorian England's aristocratic cultural mores have their grounding in dragon biology. I never read alternate history, so despite enjoying Tooth and Claw greatly, I didn't pick up Farthing until I started a science fiction challenge and made alternate history one of the genre categories. I was rather dreading it, to tell the truth; in addition to not liking alternate history, I've felt overdosed on Nazis and Hitler since I had to read Night three times in two years for school (as well as Dawn and a couple others of that ilk -- all of which were excellent, and I respected them, but there is only so much of the dark side of human nature I can take).
So when Farthing started out as a fun (well, a different kind of fun), Sayers-esque cozy British country house mystery, I was pleasantly surprised. The narrative switches between Lucy's first-person perspective and a third-person limited perspective focused on Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard, and both perspectives were absolutely perfect for the tone. Lucy reminded me of several Agatha Christie heroines -- the ones that seem least suited to solving a mystery on the outside but who deep down have all the insight into the people around them, and the necessary cynicism to suspect the darkest motives while still holding firm to her own principles of right and wrong. Inspector Carmichael was a totally different type of detective, the one who forever keeps an open mind despite all and sundry pushing him this way and that with their own biases and assumptions. Added to this mix of British delight was Walton's frank insertion of sex -- not sex as scenery, added for tone and texture but otherwise irrelevant, but sex as motivation, which none of the British mystery novelists of the time could have talked about (though many alluded to it).
Throughout the first two-thirds of the novel, this was all it appeared to be, and I was delighted by that -- British country house mysteries are one of my favorite afternoon reads, and they are a sadly limited field as their authors tend to be dead, and forensic science has made their methods completely out-dated. But I did not fall into the trap I think many readers did, judging from the comments online. I never once forgot that this was an alternate history novel.
Through that first two-thirds the alternate history was kept strictly to the background. Oh, there were hints of chilling things happening -- the casual anti-Semitism many of the characters (even some of the "good" guys) displayed, the mention that some of the Farthing set were working on measures that would (1) allow the poorer classes to leave school as early as 11; (2) restrict higher education to those who had gone through public schools (which from what I'm aware of would be classified as private schools in the U.S. -- schools like Eton); and (3) restrict voting rights to only those who had graduated from University. Even more terrifying was how few of the characters not actively involved in politics cared about those measures -- Inspector Carmichael, for example, cared only in terms of how that would affect him personally or professionally, a trait which I found abominible and utterly realistic.
And then, just as I had pieced together the mystery to my satisfaction and was wondering how Walton was going to drag it out for the last third, all that alternate history came to the fore, and it devastated me.
[SPOILER ALERT! About character growth, not the mystery.:]
Walton didn't drag out the mystery -- the characters pieced it together at almost the same time I did, and they discovered it was too late. Lucy was the most practical about this; she knew the implacable force they were up against best, and she knew when it was time to run. It was due to her essential good nature that a life was salvaged from the mess at all, and I don't expect the series to follow her any further, though I will miss her. She escaped as best she could, and if the life she gained was not what she deserved, I have no doubt that she will make the best of it. Carmichael took a little longer to understand how powerful the forces arrayed against him were, and he suffered more as a result. His eventual capitulation to those forces I found totally in keeping with his character, because as I mentioned above he was always deep down the type to focus on keeping his own head above water. Many appear to have missed Walton's clues to this facet of his character, and I don't deny that they were subtle, but I respect her more as an author because of that.
So while some have decried the ending as too abrupt and out of the blue, I found it absolutely perfect, if absolutely terrifying. The ending is what elevates the novel above Tooth and Claw -- instead of being an homage to a beloved genre with an SF twist, it is a dark, powerful, moving work entirely in its own right. I could not put it down through the last third, even though I desperately wanted to escape that world. I have no idea how Walton is going to continue to explore the world in the next two novels of the series; I don't even think I really want to know; but I know I have to pick them up and read on.(less)
I loved Farthing, the first book in this series, despite avoiding alternate history and especially anything involving Nazis and WWII like the plague....moreI loved Farthing, the first book in this series, despite avoiding alternate history and especially anything involving Nazis and WWII like the plague. In Farthing, Jo Walton took a classic British country house mystery and used it to divert the reader from all the subtly horrifying alternate history world-building going on at the edges, then brought all the alternate history aspects to the fore in the final third like a punch to the gut. It was one of the best books I've read all year.
In this sequel, which takes place almost directly after the events in Farthing, Jo Walton uses the classic thriller novel as her starting point in continuing to explore her fascist England, and if it isn't quite as successful as Farthing was, it is still compulsively readable and raises questions that will linger long after the book is finished. It can be read as a stand-alone, but I have no idea why anyone would want to, as reading it first would spoilthe events of Farthing, and that would be a terrible shame. (Needless to say, this review will also spoil the events of Farthing, so read no further if you haven't read the first book yet!)
This book has the same structure as its predecessor, alternating chapters between a tight third-person focused on Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard and a new female first-person narrator, also a woman born to the upper classes who has rejected (and been rejected by) her traditional aristocratic family. In this novel, the female narrator is Viola Larkin, who has been estranged from her family since she chose to take up acting as a profession. Carmichael is still reeling from his decision to compromise his ideals of justice to save his comfortable life with his man, Jack, and Viola has just agreed to take on the role of Hamlet in a production that will be attended by Mark Normanby (the new Prime Minister) and Adolf Hitler, who is coming to visit England to cement ties. Within the first couple chapters, Carmichael is investigating the accidental bombing death of an actress who was also going to be in the production of Hamlet, and Viola has been forced to become a part of the new assassination plot by one of her sisters, a card-carrying Communist.
This structure works less well in Ha'penny, however, because the two protagonists are far less sympathetic here than the two protagonists were in Farthing, creating emotional distance and lessening the impact of events later in the book. Carmichael, though very much consistent with the character Walton set out in Farthing, has now fallen from grace; he does not deserve the same sympathy he received when he appeared to be the righteous detective on the trail of monsters. And while Lucy Kahn was a little person caught in a trap who had the wit to find a way to escape for herself and the man she loved, Viola has much more power in determining her own destiny and chooses to give that power away by swooning over her terrorist captor. A review I read advanced the notion that she was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, but to the best of my knowledge a person does not develop Stockholm Syndrome after a momentary fright -- and besides, Viola was strongly attracted to Connelly before he ever became her captor. No, to me Viola is just another one of those fantasy girls that gets hot and bothered when a man mistreets her, and while I have no problem with sado-masochism in principle and found it wonderfully treated in Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series, in this instance it simply rang false. (Underlining the falsity, later in the novel Viola is disgusted by Normanby's subtly sadistic treatment of his wife.)
The novel also failed a little for me because I simply have no sympathy for terrorists. I reject utterly the notion that the ends can justify the means, so I had no problem rooting for Carmichael to discover the conspiracy and put a stop to it. That sucked some of the tension out of the middle of the novel, where in Farthing the middle section ratcheted up the tension by pitting Lucy against Carmichael when both were clearly on the same side.
Still, despite those weaknesses, Walton pulled off an ending that had the power to devastate, and the fact that it raises so many questions about power (questions concerning both what the ethical assertion of power looks like and what power any individual has to change any larger system) makes this a novel that people should read and discuss. I would strongly recommend it to nearly anyone, and I will most certainly be reading the next book in the series.(less)
I wanted very much to like this novel. I root for authors that try to explore gender roles and sexuality, and those topics are front and center for Il...moreI wanted very much to like this novel. I root for authors that try to explore gender roles and sexuality, and those topics are front and center for Ilario, a true hermaphrodite. Gentle does some interesting things in trying to portray the different ways Ilario is treated when dressed as a man and when dressed as a woman, but she isn't entirely successful, and she makes it more difficult for herself by making Ilario annoying in this volume. He/she spends the entire novel running headlong into one disaster after another and being obnoxious. However, when not running into disaster, Gentle does allow Ilario to see the world with a well-realized painter's eye, and the world he/she sees and describes seems fascinating. There is a great deal of moderately skillfully drawn politicking, quite a few characters I liked a lot (though more when they were offstage than when they were front and center), and enough humor to keep me reading.(less)
This novel (and its predecessor) is very much like the painting Ilario wants so much to study: full of bright colors, sometimes surprisingly evocative...moreThis novel (and its predecessor) is very much like the painting Ilario wants so much to study: full of bright colors, sometimes surprisingly evocative, but ultimately two-dimensional.
Gentle's technique is not particularly spectacular. Her descriptions are prosaic, her characters are stock, and she uses that cheapest of all tricks to keep the reader reading: ending every chapter on a cliffhanger. But she has a surprising flair for naming things: the Penitence, the Empty Chair, Alexandria-in-Exile, and others struck me with glimpses into her alternate world that felt realer than all the description she inserted.
Gentle's publisher also did her story no real service in splitting the original novel into two parts. The Stone Golem picks up exactly where The Lion's Eye left off, and there is no catch-up for the reader. I spent the first third of the novel trying to remember who all these people were and what on earth they had done in the previous volume. I'm still not convinced I've remembered it all.
I wanted this novel to be better than it was. I root for any writer that tries to explore gender roles and alternate sexualities. But Gentle simply never got the tone right for me: while Ilario's hermaphroditism was front and center in the first volume, it is almost non-existent in the second, as all the characters are already comfortable with it. There is no sex in this volume, and there wasn't any sex in the first volume after the first chapter. *SPOILER ALERT* Ilario's relationship with his/her child could have been quite interesting, except that Onorata was shuffled off mid-way through this volume for a reason I could not wrap my head around at all. *END OF SPOILER* And then the climax of the novel degenerates into a round-table where all of the men in the novel explain to Ilario that he/she is lucky in being too much of a man to be able to be legally classified a woman -- a bit of proselytizing that would have been unnecessary if Gentle had done her job better with describing Ilario's shifting gender roles (and peoples' reaction to him/her in her different states) throughout the novel.
Still, there is much to enjoy about this novel as well. Gentle's depiction of how an artist sees the world was quite interesting (though there was more of that in the first volume than the second); I did like the characters and was engaged to root for them, even though I liked them better when they were offstage than when they were in front of me acting like idiots; and the plot moved along briskly if you enjoy political machinations instead of battle scenes. I confess to being a little appalled by the fact that the characters at every turn choose to withhold information from each other, then bring that information out at the most inopportune times for discussion, but by halfway through the novel I simply submitted to that piece of silliness and was forced to admire the fact that at least they didn't snipe at each other for it. There also was a fair amount of humor that got me past some of the more absurd passages.
Ultimately, I don't know that I can strongly recommend this novel, but it is less annoying than the first volume (where Ilario simply runs headlong into one disaster after another), does attempt to explore some important issues, has quite an interesting alternate history behind it, and isn't a tremendous chore to read.(less)
So much to like and so much to dislike, all wrapped up in one slim package. The good stuff first, I think, because overall I did enjoy this book.
First...moreSo much to like and so much to dislike, all wrapped up in one slim package. The good stuff first, I think, because overall I did enjoy this book.
First off, there is thankfully nowhere near the same level of obnoxious unnecessary Capitalization in the text as there is in the jacket description. But the cover art is both eye-catching and accurate so the marketing's a wash overall. The cover art also captures the part of this book that I enjoyed the most: the sections starting about a third of the way in that are part of the long tradition of lost worlds fiction. I loved Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World and Edgar Rice Burroughs' Caspak Trilogy ages ago, and this book is a worthy entry in that genre. It depicts the same sort of bizarre wilderness, filled with unexpected dangers and delights. I raced through the sections traveling through and trying to survive that wildnerness and was varying disappointed and annoyed when other elements of the novel came to the fore.
The central world-building premise, that of the metaphor of God as clockmaker made literal, is absurdly cool. It's an obvious fit in the clockpunk genre, and Lake's reminders that this world is not our world were effective and rarely overplayed. I particularly enjoyed the fact that the protagonist could hear the heavens ticking along -- an ability that grows and changes over the course of the book, mirroring Hethor's character arc. But I wanted more done with this premise; with so much of the plot resting on turns and crises of faith, I wanted much (much!) more information on how Lake's Christianity is not our Christianity. Little changes like the Brass Christ and the altered Lord's Prayer are nice. . . but I wanted (and felt the story needed) to see how God's presence manifest and undeniable changed the history of the Western World, given how much of the moving force of our world's history rests of disputes over faith. I didn't buy that Hethor's world would be as similar to ours as it clearly was.
Even though the book is most rightly clockpunk, it is also steampunk -- it's set in the Victorian period, and there are airships in the Royal Navy. Unfortunately, I felt the entire steampunk setting was nothing more than window-dressing. There was never anything done with it. So, for example, we're told that America never broke away from England but that has no bearing on the plot and there's never any reason given for why the alternate historical elements of heavenly clockwork and working magic would have made America less likely to rebel. The Chinese Empire is the major threat to England rather than any of the other powers in Europe, but again, we're never shown why and it makes absolutely no difference to the plot who the enemy is. As far as I can tell, pretty much the only reason to give this novel a steampunk setting rather than the more natural clockpunk Renaissance setting is so that Lake can have all the adventures happen on an airship, and that's just not enough reason for me.
In fact, almost all of my reservations with the novel arise from its setting. The entire Southern Hemisphere is essentially erased, and even though that has happened for good world-building reasons it made me raise my eyebrows. If that erasure had had a measurable impact on the history of the Northern Hemisphere I would have applauded it as daring; but apparently the whole Age of Exploration (and Imperialism) was able to function exactly like ours. . . without Africa or half of the Americas to explore and conquer and mine for resources. Um, no. (One character even has a throwaway line dissing slave owners. . . who were the slaves?)
Compounding this issue is the fact that the second half of the book, the whole section I enjoyed for its Lost World air, harps (and harps, and harps) on the Noble Savage trope. Can we please retire that one now?
I had some issues with Lake's control over perspective as well -- the entire book was written from a tight third-person, except when Hethor was describing things, and then it switched to omniscient so that Lake could use references not available to his main character -- but overall this book will probably succeed or fail depending on the reader's enjoyment of lost worlds and tolerance for problematic world-building. For me it was about as much of a wash as the marketing.(less)
I do not know where to start in talking about this book.
I suppose I should start with the fact that I choked up in every single on of Hagia's sections...moreI do not know where to start in talking about this book.
I suppose I should start with the fact that I choked up in every single on of Hagia's sections, and half of Imtithal's. This is partly because I am a sap, but mostly because this book (and this trilogy, given the foreshadowing) is about a fall from paradise, about the elves going off to the Grey Havens, about the horrible inevitableness of the change you don't see coming. And that atmosphere hangs over every passage of those two narratives, infusing them with an exquisite sense of loss.
Three narratives, actually, because Hiob's framing narrative is also imbued with that grief, though at a remove.
There are four narratives, by the way -- the three previously mentioned and that of John the Priest. That complexity of structure is typical of Valente's novels (at least the four I have now read); she weaves together disparate narratives better than any author I have ever read, ignoring linearity in favor of thematic resonance. So Hiob says "I have boys to scribed for me now -- for I have often and in secret thought that it is boys' work, to copy and not to compose, to parrot, and not to proclaim" and four pages later Hagia writes "I have been all my life a scribe. . . But in the end. . . I attempt, with clumsy but earnest need, to compose and not to copy. . ." Characters echo one anothers' thoughts without knowing, and their actions are mirrored or reversed to throw light on the sorts of people they are.
This is the sort of book that rewards careful reading, and punishes any lack of attention or attempt to skim.
John's narrative, at first, does not seem to fit with the other three. It is the most chronological, mostly confining itself to whatever events it is relating rather than musing on what came later (though John does do a little of this sort of foreshadowing); it is also the most surreal, and the first section when he is adrift on the sea of sand is downright hard to figure out, because we don't yet have enough knowledge of the world to know what is real and what is metaphor. But that discordant note is a very carefully measured choice on Valente's part.
There is a passage in Lois McMaster Bujold's The Curse of Chalion that seems appropriate, so I will quote it here:
You have to make a cup of yourself, to recive that pouring out [necessary to becoming a saint]. You are a sword. You were always a sword. Like your mother and your daughter, too -- steel spines run in the women of your family. I realize now why I never saw saints, before. The world does not crash upon their wills like waves upon a rock, or part around them like the wake of a ship. Instead they are supple, and swim through the world as silently as fishes.
John is just such a sword. He is the catalyst, the thing that, when added to Hagia's delicately balanced world, changes the world rather than being changed itself. That's why when he finally is mirrored it's by Thomas, another Christian who stumbled into paradise, with vastly different results.
And Hagia is. . . absolutely the most perfect challenge her world casts against John. The book is incredibly sensual -- far more sensual than Palimpsest, which was all about sex. Each of the men of the Church is confronted with the world of the body he thought he left behind: Thomas by Imtithal's physical affection; Hiob by the fragrant, liquid rot that worked against him in his task of copying; and John by Hagia, with her eyes where her nipples should be, at the tips of abundant breasts, and totally comfortable in that body. The tension in the book comes from those challenges, even though we already know who ends up the victor.
To bring a long rambling squee to the point, every moment of this novel is perfectly constructed, every choice deliberately calculated to further the story being told. Because of this (not despite it) it is deeply moving. The best thing I read last year was Valente's two-volume The Orphan's Tales; so far this year, it is definitely The Habitation of the Blessed.(less)
This is the third book published in Bear's New Amsterdam series; it is the second in chronological order; and while it's helpful to have the backgroun...moreThis is the third book published in Bear's New Amsterdam series; it is the second in chronological order; and while it's helpful to have the background from the previous books, it isn't strictly necessary. Like Dorothy Sayers' Peter Wimsey novels, the characters grow over the course of the series, but each book has a stand-alone mystery that is the focus of its primary plot. Also like the Wimsey novels, the mysteries are completely fair and not terribly twisty, but they aren't the reason I can picture myself reading and rereading and rereading them over again.
No, the reason I can read both Sayers' detective series and Bear's detective series over and over again is twofold: first, they both feature complex main characters (plural, not just the lead detective) that I ache for; second, they both give me tantalizing glimpses of very complex worlds. In Bear's case, it's a paranormal steampunk world, where forensic sorcerors are turn-of-the-20th century CSIs and vampires are marginal members of most societies (but outlawed entirely in the American colonies). It's also a world where blissfully happy endings may exist. . . but they happen to other people.
On her livejournal, Bear said something, somewhere (my google-fu is weak today) about not being interested in the explosions (in other words, the what) but instead being mostly interested, as a writer, in the moment of choice (in other words, the why). It was an apt summation of this novella, and of all the others in this series. There is a mystery -- two, actually, in two separate timelines that come together at the end -- but the book (and this reader) is not primarily concerned with solving it, because there's really only only one possible suspect, and means & motive are crystal-clear. What this book is concerned with is the seemingly central (yet sadly underexplored) question of existence as a vampire (or any other immortal): how do you choose to keep living, when everything and everyone you love is constantly leaving you behind?
Appropriately, this novella shows two very different coping mechanisms, and implies that there are as many more as there are immortals.
Many of Bear's stories are about aging; it's one of the things I respond to in her writing. I was more affected by the way she handled it in the last New Amsterdam novella, Seven for a Secret; but that may just be because I care far more for Abby Irene than for Jack Priest, rather than being any indication of the relative quality of the works. Still, I can't quite recommend this one quite as unreservedly; I think the original collection of New Amsterdam stories (titled, obviously, New Amsterdam) is the best entry point to this world, and this novella is a further exploration aimed more at long-time fans.(less)