Friday, September 26, 2014

New Amsterdam

Elizabeth Bear
Completed 9/13/2014, Reviewed 9/14/2014
1 star

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 Great Britain by The Netherlands, they become a little community of companions and mystery solvers, while confronting the corruption and oppression of the colonial and imperial governments.

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 and characters. 

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.


  1. Oof. How unfortunate that a book with such a pretty cover turned out to be so bad!

    1. I thought the same thing! She has a lot of great ideas. Her execution was just miserable.