sff she-read #1: ALL THE WINDWRACKED STARS, by Elizabeth Bear

The original she-read post.

I learned after I started this book that “Elizabeth Bear” is actually a pseudonym for Sarah Bear Elizabeth Wishnevsky, which made me feel like I started at the end. Luckily, I’ve managed to convince myself that doing this in alphabetical order isn’t actually that important. I picked up ALL THE WINDWRACKED STARS instead of HAMMERED because it was the only book of hers the library had that was actually first in its series. And it looked like a stand-alone, although I’m given to understand that it’s the first book in the Edda of Burdens series.

Throat-clearing aside: I thought this book started off well and ended not as well; I liked the characters, but there were aspects of them that didn’t work; I liked the writing except in parts; I thought the ideas were super-creative, but sometimes cashed out not as well as they could have been. In part, much of this is a craft-level disagreement, which is a euphemism and convenient noun phrase for “I’d have written this differently.” This may be yet more throat-clearing. Let me attempt to get to a point.

I give nothing away when I say the setup of the book is Ragnarok and the conceit is that one Valkyrie, Muire, survives two and a half millennia or so into a technomantic dystopia. I thought this was a genius premise, since my reading of D’Aulaire’s Norse myths always left me a little unclear on Ragnarok: On the one hand, the world hasn’t ended, but on the other, the gods seem to be defunct, so what gives? And Bear’s answer is that of course the world has ended; worlds just take a long time to die. Long enough that Muire is poking around in the urban decay of a city of high technology and magic, which is kind of intrinsically fun — and yet without the sort of fish-out-of-water obligata that you have to sit through with, e.g., THOR, because she’s been around the whole time and is actually a lot smarter about the modern world than a lot of people who’ve been in it for one lifetime or less. She’s very much two people in one body, her original Valkyrie self and her evolved contemporary self — and I think I won’t say anything more specific than the identity crises keep on coming, for Muire and other characters.

So the premise is good. The milieu, Eiledon, Earth’s last city, is good as well — I think I would have preferred a city more fully realized, but that’s because I read China Miéville at a tender age and some prejudices have developed. It is creative and vivid, and there is enough detail, but it doesn’t signify the way that Viriconium or Ashamoil or Anvard or New Crobuzon does; that’s not really Bear’s aim. For an ignoramus like me, anyway, Bear’s variation on the legends of the Aesir is fine, no serious rough spots. And Bear can write a sentence, which is a sad thing to have to say of reputable genre writers, but some can’t.

I think my objections to the book fall into a couple of categories, and HERE FOLLOW SPOILERS. There are a few problems falling out from the fact that 2500 years is an unimaginable amount of time. First, people change; it seems totally insane that Muire would be basically the same person that she was when she lost at Ragnarok. Second, we discover at the end something I was sort of hoping not to discover, namely a way to save the world; and this is an issue less because it isn’t the outcome I wanted and more because, if 2500 years had elapsed and the world was ending, how could this not have been discovered before? Third, and least important, I cannot imagine Muire not having sex even once for two and a half millennia.

There are a couple of other problems in the broadly similar vein of what we might call insufficiently motivated Cool Stuff. Cathoair, Aethelred, and Astrid are the only Valkyries and einherjar to be reincarnated as pure humans (rather than animal-headed moreaux), and they all just happen to converge on the same bar? This ridiculous coincidence isn’t even lampshaded. There’s also a slightly laughable sequence in which a character who’s been uploaded into a computer is killed when Muire destroys the hardware storing his “core consciousness” with her sword — as if the technomancer who’s so good at technomancy that the general public knows her as The Technomancer wouldn’t have redundant cloud storage, a RAID array, maybe a LaCie drive with a backup copy? This is mostly hole-poking, of course, and should be read as such. But it does strain the dream.

Finally, this business of “craft-level disagreement.” Personally, after 2500 millennia, I wouldn’t have gone from Muire the Valkyrie in Chapter 1 to Muire the Valkyrie 2500 years later in Chapter 2. To me, that highlights too much the problem I was talking about earlier — you have an unimaginably large discontinuity, but the character shows continuity. I’d have stuck with a contemporary character, probably Cathoair, and let the Muire/Mingan insanity emerge from his point of view. I wouldn’t deny Muire her point-of-view chapters, I’d just use Cathoair to situate the reader really firmly in Eiledon before reintroducing elements of Valdyrgard. Along those lines, I’d probably have taken a few more words to dwell on the city, its politics, its moods, its subdivisions, &c. That’s one disagreement. The other is the shift from a satisfyingly hallucinatory metaphysical murder mystery to a sort of “ragtag band,” OCEAN’S 11 style of plot toward the end — which doesn’t then come together in the satisfying way it does in an OCEAN’S movie or, say, a Vlad Taltos novel. To do violence to a metaphor: One of the necessities of Swiss-watch plotting is rigid gears. The rules need to work if you’re to really enjoy watching them work together. This is what’s fun about, let’s say, JHEREG — you see and believe that Vlad is really hemmed in, and when he finds the solution, it’s (a) not the kind of solution you expect, and (b) well motivated by the setup. There are other things you can do a bit better if the rules don’t work consistently or are unclear (which is sometimes the case in Dragaera, but I shouldn’t get sidetracked) — and Bear does a lot of them well in ALL THE WINDWRACKED STARS, using unpredictable or unknown manifestations of magic to heighten emotion or suspense, provide symbolic resonance, what have you. But that approach, to my mind, just isn’t quite atmospherically consistent with the ragtag-band plot later in the book.

I’ve spent the balance of my words here on criticism because that’s what I do. I liked this book, for all its flaws. I probably won’t finish the Edda of Burdens, but I probably will try at least CHILL, CARNIVAL, or UNDERTOW, in what I think are well-motivated hopes that Bear’s talents will continue to shine and her execution will be a little bit more polished.

3 thoughts on “sff she-read #1: ALL THE WINDWRACKED STARS, by Elizabeth Bear

  1. Pingback: sff she-read #2: ZOO CITY, by Lauren Beukes « the pulchrifex papers

  2. Pingback: sff she-read 2012 « the pulchrifex papers

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