Tuesday, October 25, 2011

New Amsterdam by Elizabeth Bear

I'm in the mood lately for denser fiction, which makes Elizabeth Bear perfect. She packs a lot into her sentences, and they take concentration to unpack.

Until this one I've never been able to finish a book by Bear, actually, because I just don't like her characters and she's so damn depressing. The main characters in New Amsterdam are more likable than I expected, although I never felt very close to any of them. And I admire her often-elegant prose enough to overlook the grim tone of her writing in this book.

Each chapter of New Amsterdam is more or less standalone, with a murder to solve in each and bigger events that arch from chapter to chapter and tie the book together. There's a term for this kind of novel, but I'm damned if I can remember it. It's set in the last year of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th, in an alternate history where magic exists--as do vampires and other such creatures. The vampire Sebastien de Ulloa whiles away his empty years by helping solve crimes; sorceress Abigail Irene Garrett is a magical crime investigator for the crown in New Amsterdam.

Despite the murders and solutions--which get more complex as the book progresses--the book is not at all plot-driven. Its real purpose is to explore the meanings of love and loyalty. Sebastian is old enough that he's lost all purpose in life (or undeath) except his love for his protege Jack Priest; Abigail Irene has affairs with married, and powerful, men who don't deserve the loyalty she offers them. It's bleak, frankly. Bear's characters never feel joy.

I appreciated the writing, as I said, and the story kept me interested. I didn't love the ending, which felt abrupt--the book didn't so much end as just stop. There's a sequel, Seven for a Secret. I might read it.

B&N link (ebook)
Powell's link (used book)

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