Saturday, October 23, 2010

All the Windwracked Stars - Elizabeth Bear

This week has been a very demanding week so I am a little behind schedule on my current reading project. I may finish it this evening but I don't know if I will be able to write the review tomorrow. Even if I do I will probably run into more scheduling problems next week so I decided to throw on an older review. The original was written in October 2008. I meant to move this anyway, in anticipation of the final part in this series, The Sea Thy Mistress, scheduled for spring 2011. A review of the second book in the series, By the Mountain Bound, can be found here. I've had to rewrite the introduction since it didn't make sense in the Random Comments setting. Other than that I only eliminated the most embarrassing typos.

All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear is the first of three books in the Edda of Burdens series. Bear has been quite prolific in the past few years. She is perhaps best know for her ambitious Promethean Age novels, the fourth of which appeared in 2008. As far as I know, the fifth instalment has not been scheduled (yet). She’s written a number of other novels as well, ranging across the fantasy and science fiction genres, creating an impressive body of work for someone who's career didn't really take of until five or six years ago. Although I have read the first Promethean Age novel, Blood and Iron, since reading this book in 2008, All the Windwracked Stars, was the first novel by Bear I've read. Until that point my only experience with her writing was one short story in the Wastelands anthology, edited by John Joseph Adams. I didn’t think the story in Wastelands stood out in that particular company but All the Windwracked Stars turned out to be a very interesting book indeed.

The story is set in a world that borrows heavily from Norse mythology. As such, it opens at the end of the world, or Ragnarök. Our main character is Muire, a Waelcyrge (or Valkyrie) and destined to fight for the forces of Light at the end of the world. Muire is not the warrior type however, as her people fall, sworn to fight till the bitter end, her courage breaks and she runs. Wounded, her powers diminished, she walks the battlefield after the end, finally finding the last surviving Valraven Kasimir. His rider was killed in battle and he himself is badly wounded. A Valraven is no simple steed, he chooses to serve his riders. And he chooses Muire. Together they decide to live.

More than two thousand years on a new civilization has risen and is about to meet it’s own apocalypse. Pollution, chemical and biological warfare and all manner of disasters have reduced the world to a wasteland. One city manages to survive, using a mixture of technology and rune lore. In the middle of all that despair Muire is still clinging to life. Then an old acquaintance makes an appearance. Minegan, the Grey Wolf, the Sun-eater. Mingan has seen many things end, he hopes to make this one his last Ragnarök. Despite all she has been through, Muire begs to differ.

All the Windwracked Stars is a very hard book the categorize. It contains elements of high fantasy, steampunk and post apocalyptic fiction, creating a very unusual blend of the three. I guess you could say it takes a while for the reader to get a feel for the world and enough elements of the story to fall into place for the readers to get an idea of where Bear is taking the story. It makes the beginning of the book a bit confusing. Bear’s prose contributes to that to an extent. Although I liked the style of writing it doesn leave a lot of gaps for the reader to fill in. It makes All the Windwracked Stars a book that demands the reader’s full attention.

Paying full attention is rewarding though. Bear manages to create a fascinating character in Muire. One who carries the burden of guilt. A woman possessing the wisdom of a very long life, but also one who lives in a word she isn’t truly part of. Muire is continually fighting the urge to accept the inevitable and give up but somehow manages to find the courage to go on. Muire is far from the only well drawn character too. Although many would express a preference for Mingan, I liked Cathoair in particular. The way Bear manages to make combine in his damaged soul, the young and slightly naive fellow who thinks sex is a fix for many of his problems and a hint of the ancient reincarnated Waelcyrge Muire sees in him.

These characters move in a world that is every bit as desperate as they are. A city in a wasteland using ever more draconian measures to survive. To the point where the question whether survival using these means is actually desirable. It is the key question the characters will have to answer and it certainly isn’t an easy one. Although the setting of the book, and especially the interesting blend between technology and magic, leaves a lot of questions unanswered, the book itself doesn’t leave the reader hanging on a cliffhanger. It’s a satisfying end to an interesting novel.

It took me a while to grow into this book but nearing the end I realized this was one of the best books I’ve read in 2008. With Bear’s choice of themes it is not a happy tale. Desperation, a sense of loss and a good deal of guilt are present throughout the story. The characters don’t wallow in it however. They get on with their lives no matter what, and provide a measure of hope in the bleak word they inhabit. Norse legend, magic, strange technology and strong characters, I have high expectations of the other books in this series. If Bear keeps up the standard she sets in All the Windwracked Stars it could be a remarkable trilogy. Look beyond the slow beginning, read it start to finish and you will be rewarded.

Book Details
Title: All the Windwracked Stars
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 368
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1882-4
First published: 2008

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