Dust by Elizabeth Bear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Based on the book jacket description, this sounded like an epic fantasy. It's not. It's actually science fiction. Weird science fiction.
The book opens with Perceval Conn captured, her wings cut off. The girl taking care of her, Rien, turns out to be her half-sister, who helps her escape, and off they go to save the world. Except this world is just a really big spaceship called the Jacob's Ladder, and they're the results of a science expedition to send an evolved version of humanity out into the galaxy. Their ship is stalled, but still able to support life, and their AI is fragmented and insane.
Not that any of this is stated outright. The book never stops to explain. The characters live in and interact with this world, and the reader just has to catch up. There's no danger of infodumping in Dust. In its place is confusion aplenty. It does become clear as the story goes on, but the book requires some work on the reader's part.
The setting isn't the only unfamiliar part of the narrative. Sexuality is far different from today's standards, as is gender. Perceval is asexual, while Rien is a lesbian. There's a character referred to as "hir," and Rien corrects Perceval when she refers to the person as "her." Another character, Mallory, is never referred to by pronoun, and has characteristics of both sexes, though Mallory reads as female to Rien's same-sex attraction. There's also a lot of incest. Perceval's parents are brother and sister, and Rien's attachment to Perceval isn't sisterly. As they're only meeting for the first time when the book starts, the relationship manages to sidestep the creepiness usually inherent in incest narratives. Not that it didn't still unsettle me, how casually everyone slept with brothers and sisters.
There's also a theme of consumption. People absorb one another's memories and experiences by eating them. They recognize that the person being eaten is destroyed in the process, but then there's one character who comes to life again by being consumed after a period of dormancy.
Most of the conflict of the book revolves around the splintered AI. The strongest of them is Jacob Dust, hence the title, and he fixates on Perceval to helm the ship. To do that, he manipulates her through a symbiotic device that takes the form of a replacement for her removed wings.
The text makes it absolutely clear that Dust's tactics are gross and shouldn't be encouraged. It was not where I thought that plot point was going, so it was a relief.
This is a book not easily captured by a jacket blurb. I don't think I described it very well. This book captured the feel of being in another world, amongst very different people. And yet, for all their differences, they all felt real and whole.
I will definitely be hunting down the next book in this series. This one wraps up its own conflict well, but there's clearly a lot more left to their story.
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