Dust by Elizabeth Bear
Elizabeth Bear’s name has been on my radar for awhile. She’s one of those authors I’ve been told I must read. This particular novel of hers caught my attention because I love the generation ship trope.
What it’s about
Dust is the fist book in the Jacob’s Ladder series. For five hundred years, a ship has been stuck in orbit around a binary star. The story opens in the middle of an impending war between ship’s two main factions—a war that Rien, a commoner or “mean” and Perceval, an angel, race to stop.
The cover blurb
On a broken ship orbiting a doomed sun, dwellers have grown complacent with their aging metal world. But when a serving girl frees a captive noblewoman, the old order is about to change….
Ariane, Princess of the House of Rule, was known to be fiercely cold-blooded. But severing an angel’s wings on the battlefield even after she had surrendered proved her completely without honor. Captive, the angel Perceval waits for Ariane not only to finish her off but to devour her very memories and mind. Surely her gruesome death will cause war between the houses exactly as Ariane desires. But Ariane’ plan may yet be opposed, for Perceval at once recognizes the young servant charged with her care.
Rien is the lost child: her sister. Soon they will escape, hoping to stop the impending war and save both their houses. But it is a perilous journey through the crumbling hulk of a dying ship, and they do not pass unnoticed. Because at the hub of their turning world waits Jacob Dust, all that remains of God, following the vapor wisp of the angel. And he knows they will meet very soon.
This is not a book for the closed minded. Bear’s world appears human in many ways but centuries of genetic modifications have altered its inhabitants considerably. So much so that our notions of gender and sexual/romantic relationships are virtually extinct. While I found this all a bit confusing at first, I quickly accepted the new reality and applauded Bear for such brave and innovative storytelling. I can see, however, that the squeamish might be squicked out by the incest, though there is sound science behind the broken taboo.
Like my previous read, Grass, Dust is steeped in mystery from the opening page. The world building is a work of art. There is enough tech—genetic engineering and AI in a multitude of forms—to mark this clearly as science fiction but there are also angels and knights and biblical references, which gives it a distinctly high-fantasy feel. Even while I was lost in the story, part of me was always in awe (and more than slightly jealous) of the author’s skill.
Dust is a mere 342 pages but, like a Tardis, this book is bigger on the inside. It’s incredible how much Bear packs into one volume. Having said that, I wouldn’t have minded a few more pages. I consider myself a pretty astute reader, able to keep up with complex plots, shifting timelines, and a large cast, but for some reason I occasionally found myself confused in this story. Maybe it was the many too-similar names, I don’t know, but it was work keeping up with the who’s who and what’s what of this world. So, the plot lost me a bit but not enough to seriously detract from my enjoyment.
Dust left me with questions, which is always a sign of a great story in my mind. In this eerily believable distant future, “What does it mean to be human?” echoes in every corner. No easy answers are provided, but that’s not the point, right?
Will I read more by this author?
Yes, with a caveat. I’m well-read enough to know that an author’s body of work can vary widely. I don’t think I will continue on with this series but I would like to read some of Bear’s other books because it’s clear she’s a gifted writer.
You should read this book if…
- Generation ship stories are your thing.
- You’ve been longing for a story that isn’t afraid to bend genders and challenge your social mores.
- There’s no such thing as “too weird” in your opinion.
- You appreciate excellence in world building.
- You’ve always wanted to see a mash-up of quest fantasy and techy science fiction.
Where to find Dust on The Zon: Dust
Up next: The Last Summoner by Nina Munteanu