Saturday, September 17, 2011

Girl on Book Action: All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear

All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear
ISBN: 978-0-7653-5851-6


It begins with Ragnarok, the end of all things, the battle between the Children of the Light and their tarnished brothers and sisters.  But in Valdyrgard, three survive: the least of the Valkyrie, a valraven to be her steed, and the Grey Wolf whose betrayal sparked the final battle.  And because they still live, Valdyrgard is a very long time dying.

More than two thousand years later, Muire still walks the streets of Eiledon, the last human city, while her valraven hides in a distant valley.  But the Grey Wolf has come hunting in Eiledon.


My Thoughts:

I don’t know much about the Valkyrie or Norse mythology.  What I do know, I’ve mostly learned from retellings.  When I read the Nibelungenlied (an early medieval Germanic tale that features a Valkyrie), I felt sorry for Brunhild because Siegfried tricks her out of her powers and she ends up married to the weakling Gunther (wait, you haven’t read the Nibelungenlied?  What’s wrong with you?).  Anyway, suffice to say I’m no expert on the topic, but that didn’t make Bear’s treatment any less effective.

What I loved most in this novel is the combination of technology and magic, how they both exist and neither cancels the other out.  I can't say that I've read a lot of stories where these two things are so intertwined (actually, I can't think of another one off the top of my head). Regardless of magic and technology, the world is ending, destroyed by its inhabitants.  The planet is toxic.  The setting, the culture and the sense of doomedness (is that not a word? How about Doomwenchedness?  No?  Hmm, well, I say they should be! But I digress...) almost overwhelmed me.  I walked away from this book feeling humbled.  Bear’s vision and story-telling ability are breathtaking.  I almost feel speechless.  I'm in awe.  There is a level of complexity to this world and it's presented with subtlety and grace.  At no time was there a huge info-dump and details were never thrown in my face.  Things were revealed at a pace that felt organic, showing as much through implication as through actual facts.  The world-building isn't heavy-handed, but it gives you what you need when you need it.

Muire is not a character you necessarily like.  I did feel sorry for the situation she's in even though it's really her own fault.  Her redemption lies in knowing that she only has herself to blame.  While she isn't exactly the happiest person in town, I never got the impression that she was whining, just filled with understandable regret.  I felt like the characters were kept at a distance though, which wasn't a problem.  One shouldn't be close to angels, shouldn't identify with them, really.  Of course, the character I liked best is (you can probably guess)...Grey Wolf.  He was tragic and beautiful and everything I always love (surprisingly he doesn't die).  Kasimir was pretty amazing, too, both in his natural state and in the steampunky incarnation.  The relationships between the characters are painful and gorgeous and very real.  Love in this world is an exquisitely agonizing bond.

The story evolves and it's as much about the dying world as it is about the characters and their struggles.  People trying to hold onto a little bit of land that isn't completely destroyed and the lengths to which they are willing to go to keep the whole planet from succumbing to the toxicity unleashed on it.  At the end, the novel is about making difficult choices and being willing to live with consequences.

I think the only thing that left me feeling a bit disappointed is that in this well-portrayed, rich world we never got to see the part of town that belongs to the upper class.  There are references to its opulence and the very great divide between those with a lot of money and those without, but its never "on-screen" to show the disparity and highlight the difficulty of living in the poor parts of the city.

A minor complaint if I ever had one.  In closing, let me say what I've said way too often already, but will repeat regardless - whenever my ban on buying books ends, I'll be picking up more of Bear's novels.  You may interpret that as a glowing endorsement of her stuff, which is to say, you should be running out to buy her books now and then gloat at me to make me suffer.  That's only fair.  Go on, immerse yourself in the heartbreaking streets of Eiledon.  I dare you.  And if new takes on Arthurian legend are more your cup of tea, you should check out my thoughts on Bear's excellent Blood and Iron.

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