Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Review: All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear

All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear
Published: Tor, 2008
Series: Book 1 of Edda of Burdens

The Book:

It all began with Ragnarok, with the Children of the Light and the Tarnished ones battling to the death in the ice and the dark. At the end of the long battle, one Valkyrie survived, wounded, and one valraven – the steeds of the valkyrie.

Because they lived, Valdyrgard was not wholly destroyed. Because the valraven was transformed in the last miracle offered to a Child of the Light, Valdyrgard was changed to a world where magic and technology worked hand in hand.

2500 years later, Muire is in the last city on the dying planet, where the Technomancer rules what’s left of humanity. She's caught sight of someone she has not seen since the Last Battle: Mingan the Wolf is hunting in her city. “ ~from barnesandnoble.com

I’m reading this as a part of the 2011 Women in Fantasy Book Club hosted by “Jawas Read, Too!”.  The only other book I’ve read by Elizabeth Bear is Dust, which was published a year before All the Windwracked Stars. Though the two books share a fair bit in terms of style, imagery, and story, I preferred the characters and setting of All the Windwracked Stars.

My Thoughts:

The setting of All the Windwracked Stars was the first thing that hooked me into the story.  Most of the narrative occurs in the last human city of Eiledon.  Descriptions of this last city, with its floating-island university town, shadowed slums beneath, and techno-magical barrier against the pollution of the dying earth, painted amazing images in my mind.  I also enjoyed the descriptions of the landscape outside of Eiledon and other dead worlds (from Norse mythology).  The characters were also thoroughly described in a very physical, visual way that managed not to feel gratuitous to me.  I particularly liked the detailed focus on the moreaux, animals transformed by the Technomancer to be nearly human.  In terms of visuals, I think All the Windwracked Stars could be made into a really lovely high-budget film.

The scenery was very different than her generation-ship science fiction novel Dust, but I was struck by how much specific elements and imagery the two stories had in common. I’m not sure if these are just common things that Bear enjoys including in her writing, or if it was just a spillover of ideas between two books written around the same time period.  Either way, the repetition of ideas sometimes made All the Windwracked Stars feel very familiar.  Among other things, both novels include the idea of power transferred through kissing, broken organic wings repaired by inorganic matter, the ability to consume the consciousness, knowledge and memories of a dead person, a dying world, and a race of immortals that look completely human. There were also some similarities between the overall shape of the plot and the style of writing between the two books.  Even though the two books had a lot in common, I still thought that the characters and the apocalyptic Norse world of All the Windwracked Stars formed a compelling story.

In a style that is beginning to seem characteristic of Bear, the reader is tossed into the middle of the story, with no explanations.  In this case, a great deal has happened before the opening of the novel, making it feel almost like a sequel.  The back-story is never explicitly explained, but the reader can figure most of the basics out through the interactions and thoughts of the characters.  I thought it was an interesting way to present the story, but I felt that it did present some problems.  For one thing, I felt that some moments between characters in the earlier parts of the story were robbed of emotional impact by the lack of context.  Also, the lack of explanations made keeping all the Norse terms and names straight a little challenging.  There are terms for creatures, such as waelcyrge, einherjar, sdadown and valraven, and some of the minor characters’ names are equally unfamiliar, like Strifbjorn or Herfjotur.  I think this no-exposition approach makes getting through the beginning of this novel a challenge, but things do begin to make sense if you keep reading.

Even after I became interested in the story and eager to see how things would turn out, I was frustrated by the relentlessly depressing mood of the story. The main character, Muire, has already survived Ragnarok, thanks to her own cowardice.  The main story is set during a later, much more human apocalypse—the world is poisoned and dying, and the last city of humanity is in its last days.  Every major character has a tragic past, a bleak present, and a mostly hopeless future.  Multiple characters consider or attempt suicide.  It seems like any time some hope arises, it is promptly crushed.  After a while, I got tired of listening to the characters talk about how they wished they were dead/deserved to be dead/wished the world would finally end/etc.     

Lastly, I had a few technical issues with the novel.  Most of the novel was in past tense, but a few scenes were written in present tense.  I think this may have been used to denote Mingan’s point of view, but I’m not sure.  The story was written in third-person limited, where the point of view character shifted between Mingan, Muire, the valraven Kasimir, the cat moreau Selene, and the male prostitute and fighter Cathoair.  Sometimes, when multiple characters were physically present, I seemed a little unclear whose point of view the story was being told through.  There were also some errors that could have been caught by a thorough copy-editing. For example, at one point, a character asks:

“How did you come to know [character name]?” –p.181
and the response is:
“Not long. Perhaps fifteen years? He was not old by human standards.” - p.181

I’m guessing the question was intended to be “How long have you known [character name]?”. I’m not sure if that was just a problem with my version, so I’ll specify that I was reading the e-book version sold by Barnes & Noble.  In general, the writing was the choppy, fragment-filled style that seems to have become popular lately.  I’m not much of a fan of the style, but I think it did help to give a sense of the despair that filled the hearts of all of the characters.

My Rating: 3/5

All the Windwracked Stars is an interesting combination of a far-future apocalyptic world and Norse mythology.  The world itself and the characters that inhabit it form an impressive mental image.  Bear throws the readers into the story with no info-dumps. The lack of explanation made it a little challenging to pick up the extensive unexplained back-story common to several characters, the Norse terminology, and the unfamiliar Norse names.  I did not much care for the choppy style and the continually depressing tone of the story, and there were some areas with technical errors.  Despite all of these gripes, I do think that the story was ultimately worth reading.

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