No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

2013/08: New Amsterdam -- Elizabeth Bear

The blood was only a metaphor. It was that strength—and the lightness of body of the dead, freed of the weight of the grave by having passed through it—that gave Sebastien the ability to thrust his fingertips into the mortared cracks between the bricks, flex and press until fingertip ridges caught, and rise effortlessly along the hotel’s soot-stained facade. He felt, for the moment, a right bastard of a cliché. [loc. 3829]

Six linked novellas concerning the affairs of Abigail Irene Garrett, forensic sorceress and dedicated officer of the Crown. Though not quite the Crown as we know it: this is an alternate fin de siecle where North America is still governed by the British; where New Amsterdam was only ceded to the British during the Napoleonic Wars; where vampires -- well, Dom Sebastien de Ulloa -- travel by dirigible; where Nikola Tesla has illuminated Paris with broadcast energy.

Abby Irene is at the centre of these stories. She refuses to fade quietly into the background as society hints that a lady of advancing years should do: instead she drinks, takes lovers, associates with criminals and doesn't give a fig for the opinions of her intellectual inferiors, i.e. pretty much everybody else. Dom Sebestian -- more than a thousand years old, fighting furiously to remain detached from the mayfly mortals who surround him -- fascinates her. And her association with the vampire opens up a whole new set of supernatural crimes requiring solutions.

There are a number of striking characters in New Amsterdam (Jack, the fearless young revolutionary who is Dom Sebastien's dinner-and-date, is especially likeable). Elizabeth Bear's evident enjoyment of plot, world and cast is infectious, too: so much so that it's easy to overlook the moral complexity, and emotional depth, of the stories.

But there's a great deal more to these stories than the superficial love triangle, or the tangles of sorcery. The whole of New Amsterdam is threaded with meditations on loyalty and treachery, independence (both personal and political) and the many flavours of love. When (not if) I return to this book, it'll be for the shifting allegiances and emotional ties between the characters.

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