Completed 9/13/2014, Reviewed 9/14/2014
I decided to read this book to complete the Elizabeth Noun challenge: read one book by each author named
Elizabeth with a noun for a last name (the
others being Moon and Hand). The premise
sounded great, a wampry (vampire) and an alcoholic magician join forces to
solve murder mysteries in an alternative history where the American colonies
remained parts of the British and Dutch empires. Within ten pages, my mind numbed, my eyes
glazed, and I wondered how I was ever going to get through it.
The book is formatted as a collection of short stories more or less advancing the plot of Abby Irene, a forensic sorcerer for the British Crown; Sebastian the wampyr; Jack, Sebastian’s companion, ward, and primary food-source; and Mrs. Smith, a well-to-do author of mysteries. In New Amsterdam, recently ceded to
by The Netherlands, they become a little community of companions and mystery
solvers, while confronting the corruption and oppression of the colonial and
The ideas are good, the characters full of potential, and the murder mysteries are, well, mysterious. The problem with the book is that Bear is not a great writer. The main characters are ripe for great development. I was intrigued by all of them, but they are never really fleshed out. They were rose above standard fare, cardboard and one-dimensional. There are moments where their relationships attempt depth, particularly in the feeding scenes, but the intensity of these scenes does not carry through the rest of the narrative.
Jack was my favorite character. A foppish, flirty young man with lots of seedy connections, he is defensive and supportive of, and madly in love with Sebastian. His scenes with the wampyr are some of the best, but the rest of the time, he’s either sullen or simply summarizing his investigations. We get no other depth into the person of Jack, or much detail on his relationships with the lower class, the revolutionaries, and the other connections he makes with the people on the fringe of society.
Abby Irene, as the alcoholic magician, should be a great character, but she is perhaps the most flat. Her story involves soapy, illicit, and ultimately boring relationships with some of the most powerful men of
New Amsterdam. I never really bought her angst, and her use
of magic throughout the story is quite bland. When she pulls out her wand, it always seems
to be an afterthought. I often found
myself thinking, “That’s right. I forgot
she’s a wizard.” Suzanne Clarke’s
“Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” does a much better job of creating an
alternate history where magic is an integral part of the reality of the setting
Ultimately, the stories in this book feel more like episodes of a bad TV series on an also-ran cable network, with poor writers, mediocre acting, and only an occasional moment of inspiration. There are a lot of good ideas, but the execution is poor. It feels like Bear decided to write a book targeting the steampunk subculture, throwing in dirigibles, vampires, the dawn of electricity, a little magic, and a Victorian America, but really didn’t know how to meld it into something more than made-for-cable episodes.
Throughout the reading of this book, my brain wanted to explode from the tedium of the prose. I actually had to break it up, reading other books between each chapter. Even by the end, when I decided I did like most of the characters, I was still bored by the writing style and execution of the story. Having finally finished it, I don’t have any interest in picking up any other books by Bear. This is my lowest rating of a book this year: one star out of five.