Dust is the first book in the Jacob’s Ladder trilogy by Elizabeth Bear. The second book in this science fiction series is called Chill, and both books are available in mass market paperback and as e-books. Grail, the final volume, will be released on February 22. The imminent conclusion combined with the fact that this book was the January selection for the Women of Science Fiction Book Club made this the perfect time to read Dust (which has unfortunately been sitting unread on my bookshelf for far too long even though it is by one of my favorite authors).
Ariane of the House of Rule, the eldest of the Conn princes and princesses not to be killed, disowned, or missing, defeated Sir Perceval of Engine. When Perceval surrendered, Ariane severed her wings, removed her clothes and jewelry, bound her in nanotech chains and paraded her to a prison in House Rule. When Ariane’s father, the Commodore, is angered by this, Ariane kills him and devours his memories – just as she plans to do to Perceval. It soon becomes apparent that Ariane doesn’t just want to take over Rule – she wants a war with Engine and world conquest.
Rien, the servant girl put in charge of the care of the prisoner, is shocked when Perceval immediately calls her by name with no introduction. She’s even more shocked when Perceval says she knew her because they are sisters – unknown to Rien, she is the daughter of one of the same Conn prince who is Perceval’s father. Although Rien isn’t sure she believes Perceval’s claim, she is a soft-hearted girl who feels protective of this young woman. One night Rien leaves her room and frees Perceval so the two can travel to Engine and try to prevent the war began when Perceval was captured.
Meanwhile Jacob Dust, the memory of the god of the world, has taken an interest in their journey and would seek to use them. However, he’s not concerned about the war as he has bigger problems to deal with – such as the end of the entire world with the approaching explosion of their sun.
Other than Dust, I have read (and reviewed) 8 books by Elizabeth Bear, who is one of my favorite authors. (She’s also a very prolific author – 9 books may sound like a lot of books, but I still have a long way to go before catching up.) Although Dust had a lot of similarities to Bear’s other books, it was my least favorite of those I’d read so far. The ideas and setting were very well-executed, but the characters were not as compelling as ones from her other books I’ve read.
As is common with Bear’s books, there’s no real introduction to her world – the story begins without background information and as one reads more, what is going on slowly comes together. This does make for some confusion about what exactly is going on at the beginning, which doesn’t make it the easiest book to read. Personally, I really love this technique and think it adds an air of mystery, but it does mean needing to pay careful attention so it’s not a book to read when in the mood for a light, easy-to-read book. This also makes it very re-readable since starting it again with more knowledge of how the world works will help with gleaning all the details.
It’s not at all a dense book and has lots of short paragraphs. Some of the writing is very elegant, but it is not nearly as beautifully written as The Edda of Burdens series or The Promethean Age books. Although there are some lovely passages, the writing is generally more functional than poetic.
Also, the characters were more conduits for carrying out the plot than people with fleshed out personalities that were really worth rooting for and caring about. Some of the minor characters, particularly the angels Dust and Samael, were interesting to read about because of their mysterious motivations, but there was nothing about the two main characters that really made me love them. I did enjoy watching Rien’s progress from servant girl to the higher class, and she did have compassion and a heroic spirit. She was easier to relate to than Perceval, who although brave seemed very distant and wasn’t as passionate as Rien, instead devoted to her knightly duties. There was a part at the end that affected me somewhat, but for the most part there was no emotional attachment to any of the characters or their situations.
The strength is really in the setting and the plot. Even though this is a science fiction book complete with nanotech and people living in space, it is very reliant on fantasy conventions and is rather mythical. Despite being such a high-tech society, it has almost a medieval feel with princesses, dungeons, sword-wielding, a necromancer, and angels. Yet all of these are based on advanced technology – the swords are nanotech, the necromancer works with memories of the deceased, and the angels are various AIs running different ship functions (more guardians than what we would think of as angels):
“I’m the Angel of Death, aren’t I?” The knobby hands turned palm-up now. “And you’re the Angel of Memory. So trade me a little knowledge for a little life. A little withholding of death, if you will.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Dust said. “You’re not the angel of anything.”
“That’s what they call us. And not just us. Some of them call the old crew angels and demons, too.”
“Ahh,” Dust said, willing his fingers to stillness when they wanted to worry his sleeves,” but we know better, don’t we? Besides, if you were the angel of anything, it would be the angel of…life-support services.” He scraped his boot across the deck, leaving a green smear of chlorophyll like a punctuation mark.
“Not very poetic,” Samael said, disappointed.
Dust shrugged. He only cared about his own poetry. [pp. 68]
It also has a storyline common to fantasy books since one of the main characters is raised without knowing she is a princess until she is 16 and then plays a large role in the fate of her world. There’s also an emphasis on rediscovering the origins of the world. No one other than the angels really seems to know where they came from, why they’re there, or the purpose of the world. Along the way, the characters discover it along with the readers as the angels try to manipulate the humans. They never seem to be good or evil, though – they have their own agenda without seeming particularly villainous or heroic.
Dust had a well-developed setting with both a past and present that slowly unraveled to reveal the reality of the world. It was a very cleverly told story with some twists and placement of fantasy traditions in a science fiction world. Although I enjoyed it and find it interesting to reflect on, the characters were not easy to become attached to, meaning I didn’t love it the same way I normally do books by Elizabeth Bear. However, there was enough to recommend about the rest of it that I am planning to read the next book, although most likely not soon.
My Rating: 7/10
Where I got my reading copy: I bought it.
Women of Science Fiction Book Club Discussion (of course, there are spoilers if you have not read Dust)