Three: Dust by Elizabeth Bear

I just finished this book (a day late) so I’m still processing.

I am a fan of Bear – I’ve previously read her Jenny Casey trilogy, a short story collection, and I’ve been reading her blog for years (where you get some great insight into the writing process). Dust is the first of her Jacob’s Ladder novels, set on a crippled generation ship stuck in orbit around a dying star system. The humans on board have divided into the major factions of Engine and Rule, in constant rivalry, and the ship’s computer, damaged in the disaster that crippled the ship, has fragmented into disparate AIs that war among themselves for control of the systems. A young knight from Engine, Perceval, is brought to Rule crippled and chained, and the servant Rien is given care of her until her execution. And then Rien learns that they are, in fact, sisters, and that she was kept as a hostage of Rule against Engine – and becomes caught up in the larger events around her, first in rescuing Perceval, and eventually in working to save their ship that is a world.

It’s a cliché for a servant girl to discover she’s secretly a princess, but the book is full of subversions and inversions that play with these tropes: the princess rescues the knight, and the knight is also a princess. I’m not sure this book really believes in princesses.

Princesses had adventures. Princesses were taken as prizes of war. Princesses had to battle monsters if they were going to survive, and the monsters inevitably won. If not the monster you fought against, the monster you served.
Or the monster you became.
Except, she thought, the only lasting place in the world for princesses was deeply in denial, and the only important question in the end was, was it better to become the monster, or to become the servant of the beast?

The book is notable, too, for the display of gender and sexuality – the main characters are a lesbian and an asexual. One minor character is ungendered; another is hermaphroditic. Incest is apparently not uncommon among the genetically engineered ruling family.

But what grabbed me first was the prose. Right from the first line: In the corner of the window, a waxen spider spun. The book reads almost effortlessly – something that takes effort to achieve – and now and then you come across these simple, elegant images, like this found by pulling open the book to a random page: …she slid from her own head like sand through fingers, and fell back into the stretcher undone.

The concepts and setting demand attention at times to understand what is going on – the AIs for one example are unusual characters that it can take a little while to wrap your head around in the early encounters – but it’s a fast-moving and light read for the most part. Dust is, in the end, an engaging and entertaining novel, and one that avoids many clichés despite the density of tropes. Well worth a read.

I haven’t chosen the next book yet.


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