Alytha's Reviews > Grail

Grail by Elizabeth Bear
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's review
Jan 07, 2012

really liked it

** spoiler alert ** Finished Chill and Grail, volumes 2 and 3 of the Jacob's Ladder trilogy by Elizabeth Bear.

Chill picks up immediately after the end of Dust. The Jacob's Ladder is under way again after 500 years, but all is not perfect. The newly-made Captain Perceval has to deal with the loss of Rien, and learn to work with the new ship's Angel Nova, composed of Rien and the fragmented Angels she ingested at the end of Dust. Nova, meanwhile, notices that something is fighting her control over the ship's systems.
In order to be able to survive the acceleration, all inhabitants of the Jacob's Ladder have been forcibly Exalted. And they're not too happy about that.
Benedick and Tristen seperately travel through the ship to find their antagonist, and run into different factions not happy with the Conn rule, foremost a group of Edenists, who violently oppose the forced evolution enforced by the the Builders who launched the Jacob's Ladder almost a thousand years ago. As if that wasn't enough, Tristen discovers that the Edenists leader, Dorcas, wears the body of his deceased daughter Sparrow.
Meanwhile, Benedick and Chelsea, another member of the Conn family, take another route and meet giant, intelligent, carnivorous mobile orchids, among other things. Fortunately, they're friendly.
In the course of the novel, several dark secrets are laid open, some relating to the true aims of the Builders, and some to the mysterious Cynric Conn, who developed most of the creatures inhabiting the Jacob's Ladder, as well as the nano-colonies the Exalted rely on.

Grail continues 50 years after the events of Chill. The Jacob's Ladder has discovered a habitable planet on their course. Unfortunately, other humans have got there first, as faster than light travel was invented while the Jacob's Ladder drifted through space.
The book's perspective shifts between the people on the ship, and the Administrators of the planet, Danilaw and Amanda, each trying to come to terms with the respective "aliens".
Unfortunately, an ancient antagonist on the ship decides to use the opportunity to take over control, and there's an attack on the Bridge resulting in a very tragic death.
Most of the book is concerned with philosophical discussions about the two forms of human civilsation: the highly advanced but rather chaotic Jacob's Ladder people, for whom evolution and adaptation is the highest aim, and on the other side the highly ordered people of Fortune, who have culled all negative elements out of the human mind through a procedure called "rightminding". The people of Fortune are all well-adjusted, rational and useful members of society. Thus, members of both groups are almost constantly fighting their own instincts making them see the other as an abomination.

It's a bit hard to describe what I like so much about Elizabeth Bear...she has a very distinctive style, very intelligent and somehow poetic, which also often requires the reader to think along with her. No easy, ready-to-swallow conclusions for the most part.
The Jacob's Ladder is a fascinating world, full of amazing creatures, and people who, despite their evolution and all their little nano-toys, still have to deal with the most basic human emotions; love, loss, impossible families...
On the ship, technology and life seamlessly flow into eachother, as seem in the colonies supporting the people, and the toolkits, which are essentially a cross between a Swiss army knife and a smart phone in the shape of a fluffy squirrel-like creature, which is also biologically alive. Life, death, nature and artifice are very flowing here. It reminded me of Dan Simmons' Hyperion, Endymion and Illium a bit.

I also liked how in Grail, the author does not take a side in the argument. Both societies have their pros and cons (though the Jacob's Ladder has more Conns....sorry...), and the motivations of both sides are thoroughly understandable.
In the end, the conflict can only be solved by a bit of a deus ex machina (angelus ex machina rather), but it was pretty much the only way.

Some nitpicks though: I found it hard to get a scale of the ship. It's only ever described as gigantic, but it only really seems to exist in small portions, the rest is kinda vague. Also, we're never told how many people are on it. We almost only meet the Conns and their associates, and the Edenites. It is implied that a lot of the ship is empty, but a bit more description would have been nice here.

Also, I'd really like a family tree of the Conns. On the other hand, their cheerful incest (being Exalted has its advantages) might make drawing one a bit complicated.

In Grail, I didn't really like the Ariane storyline. It seemed a bit superfluous, with all the philiosophical debate between the ship and Fortune going on. Also, it read like a bit of a rehash of the issues in Chill. It was also pretty obvious who Ariane was hiding in, and there wasn't much emotional impact for me, because the host never had much of a personality herself anyway. The end result is dependant of the Ariane plot, but without the problems she generated, a very different conclusion could have been found. It's a bit of a self-serving cause and effect, and none of it really necessary.

Now, I'd really like to read a prequel to Dust, and see how their high-tech feudal disfunctional society on a spaceship actually worked in the beginning...

Chill: 8/10
Grail: 7.5/10

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