The White City by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear’s books and I have an interesting relationship. If you combined all of her books into a person, this person would be the type who you see all the time getting lunch or in the coffee shop and you think, “this person is the kewlest person evar!” and you when you finally get to meet them, you want to make the best impression possible and you really, really want to be on good terms with them and maybe build a solid friendship out of it. And the first couple of times are ok. You each learn who the other is. But this person is definitely their own kind of person and while they might say and do wonderful things that put a smile on your face, this person can be off in their own world and completely ignore you for days on end. And yet, you can’t turn away from the person completely, because this person is one of the most compelling individuals you have ever seen/met and you always want to have at least a tiny connection to them.

Now that I’m done anthropomorphizing a group of books, how was the actual book in question? Pretty good. It was 189 pages, so it was more novella than novel, but it covered a lot and had a compelling story. This was the fourth Elizabeth Bear book I’ve read and the third in this particular universe. Chronologically, it comes after the story collection New Amsterdam and before the novella Seven for a Secret, and the story, like all the others, is a murder mystery. In this particular case, it’s two interconnected stories and murders because it involves the past of two characters crashing into the present, and each alternate chapter takes place in either the past or present. The world itself is an alt-history world with both magical and steampunk elements and vampires. No, not the cheesy kind, the awesome kind. Sebastien de Ulloa is a wampyr, or a member of the Blood, has been alive for more than a thousand years, and has lived and seen so much that he’s forgotten his childhood, the language of his birth, even his original name. He’s a lonely soul and while he has a small coven of people who he’s fond of and loves, he knows he will always leave them because they will die and he will live and move on.

In addition, Abby Irene and Phoebe Lewis are back. I’d forgotten how much I liked both of these characters; they’re both brisk, efficient, and are confident in themselves and in the jobs they do. Abby Irene in particular is pretty cool, she’s basically a magician police officer (she even has a Th.D! the T stands for Thaumaturgy).  I’d actually completely forgotten about the character of Jack Priest and (spoiler!) that he died at the end of New Amsterdam. Ah well, I liked him well enough here, as well as the new wampyr, Starkad, who was even older than Sebastien and even more dead inside. I liked how Sebastien interacted with him, because for once in his (really, really long) life, he’s not the oldest person in the room anymore, and that completely changes his position and how he relates to ongoing events and other people.

It’s interesting that I remembered and liked these characters, as the last book by Elizabeth Bear that I read had characters that might as well have been made of cardboard for all I felt anything towards them. I think characters are always going to be the wild card whenever I read an Elizabeth Bear book. In addition, I’ve found her writing difficult to get into in some of her other books, but not this time. Maybe because it was shorter and now I’m more familiar with her writing, especially with this particular series? However, no matter what kind of story she writes, her worlds are always excellent, and this one is no exception. Previous stories in this world have taken place aboard an airship, in the new-and-revised version of the American colonies, France, and Germany. This story takes place in turn-of-the-century Russia and the description and setting are perfect, down to the bitter cold, the hardened people on the streets, and the underground bohemian artist and revolutionary movement.

I was going to give up on Elizabeth Bear, or at least wait a long time to read another book by her, after really not getting into Dust, but maybe I should give her another chance and try out a different series. I really want to adore her books because they are some of the most unique books out there, she never writes the same thing twice, and she includes so many different types of characters in terms of background, race/ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. Still, her books are definitely not reader-friendly, she makes you work for your reading experience. I just need to find the books that are, for me, are worth the effort.

Published in: on April 9, 2011 at 1:10 AM  Leave a Comment  

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