Elizabeth Bear’s latest novel, All the Windwracked Stars, is the first book in The Edda of Burdens trilogy. As a big fan of her Promethean Age series as well as A Companion to Wolves (co-written with Sarah Monette), I was very much looking forward to this book. While I did not enjoy it quite as much as the other novels, it was still very good with a fantastic backstory steeped in Norse mythology.
The tale begins with the end of the world. The dead bodies of the children of the Light are buried under the falling snow – all except for the smallest one, the historian and poet Muire, who ran away instead of facing her fate with her sisters and brothers. Muire returns after the battle, where is she is found by the badly injured Kasimir, the last remaining valraven whose Valkyrie rider is among the fallen. The two keep each other alive throughout the night, and the next morning Kasimir chooses Muire as his new rider, despite her protests that she is unworthy because of her cowardice. However, Muire leaves him once he is healed, fearing the changes he underwent as he was forged into a metallic steed of war in preparation for the world to come.
Approximately 2300 years pass and the world is decaying once again. Two hundred years before, a mere two cities remained and now the final city is beginning to ebb, kept alive only by the efforts of the Technomage. Muire has survived throughout the years and now resides in this last city, Eiledon. One night she encounters a dying man and chooses him, which gives her some of his memories and a desire to avenge him. In doing so, she realizes that one of the tarnished children of the Light still walks the earth in these final days and determines to find this ancient enemy.
All the Windwracked Stars is one of those books that is not clearly science fiction or fantasy but some of both, although it felt more like a fantasy book to me. The setting is in a future more technically advanced than ours and when the second chapter mentioned humans using their science to destroy themselves, I expected it to have more emphasis on the destruction of the world by its residents than it actually did. There was more emphasis on the mythological elements and magic and the book reminded me very much of a fairy tale with its lyrical prose and the complete immersion in a fantastic world that is not entirely our own. Magic occurs all the time but it just seems to fit and is shown instead of being over-explained.
As with A Companion to Wolves, which also was based on Norse mythology, a lot of difficult to pronounce Nordic words are thrown around without a lot of explanation on their meaning, if any. Personally, I enjoy this style and find looking up details on the background of the various terms to be a part of the fun of reading a book by Bear, but some readers may find it jarring to encounter expressions such as “waelcyrge” and “einherjar” regularly. Usually there is enough context to get the general idea, though.
All the Windwracked Stars is not a light, mindless read, although it is not a particularly difficult book, either. It does require some attention since it is not as straightforward as many novels and does not always spell everything out (and contains a lot of unfamiliar terms, as mentioned previously). I suspect this is another one that would still be interesting to reread and that I’d catch many subtleties that I missed the first time around.
The characters are good but not great, which is mainly why I did not enjoy this book as much as the other books I have read by Bear. Reflecting on it, I liked all the characters – just not as much as some of the ones in her other books (even though the characters in A Companion to Wolves other than the main character and his wolf were not well drawn, I very much enjoyed those two). Kasimir, the valraven, was my favorite. His rejection by Muire immediately after the death of his previous rider made me feel badly for him, especially since he chose to serve her and did it so gladly. Muire’s yearning for redemption was interesting and I did enjoy reading about her. There were a couple of other characters who had their own chapters but fewer of them than Muire, a gigolo and a cat-person in the service of the Technomage. The animal-people in general were fun to read about and the Technomage’s view of their obedience or disobedience – that, as their creator, it was her own failing if they displeased her.
The writing is gorgeous and the opening lines really drew me in to the story. Actually, the entire first chapter had this wonderful cataclysmic yet melancholy feel to it when it described the end of the world and Muire and Kasimir’s survival. The next two or three chapters, which took place far in the future, had a different tone completely and did not keep my attention quite as well. However, after that, I could hardly put the book down.
All the Windwracked Stars is not the strongest book by Elizabeth Bear, but it is still a very good story. I definitely look forward to reading the rest of the series.