Book Review 2009 #21: All the Windwracked Stars

All the Windwracked Stars is a novel by Elizabeth Bear.

Elizabeth Bear is an audacious, difficult, and ultimately rewarding author. There are good reasons why she won a Campbell award, and a Hugo award. She’s ambitious, writes characters who are all-too-human, and is very willing to take standard pieces of the F/SF genre, and rework them, remix myth and Story into it, and come out with books and stories that bite.
All the Windwracked Stars is the latest in that tradition. Informed and infused by Norse mythology, the novel begins with, paradoxically, a Ragnarok. We meet Muire, last of the Valkyrie, and Kasimir, the Valraven steed that bonds to her in the denouement of that final battle. Muire the Historian, to her shame, does not die as the rest of the Children of the Light do, and so lives on and on to see civilization, this time a human one, arise again on Valdyrgard. As you might expect, with a novel based so heavily on Norse stories, and given Bear’s writing proclivities and style, the novel carries us headlong toward the inevitable fall of this human civilization.
It is between these two falls of civilizations that the meat of the novel and the Story take place. Muire still has her Valkyrie obligations, and it is in the unfolding of those obligations that Muire encounters an old enemy, and discovers the real reason why Eiledon, the last city, has managed to survive until the end under its implacable, mysterious ruler, the Technomancer.
Norse Myth and Mythology. Strange technology and a Last City set in blasted landscape. Complex characters muddling along as best they can. Muire seeks a chance at redemption, a strong and potent theme in the novel, reflected across the range of characters. And while it might not be a crackerjack straightforward plot, Bear hauntingly and memorably creates Valdyrgard and Eiledon and its denizens.
I’ve said in other reviews that Bear’s work is probably not for everyone, or every SF reader. However, given that she is at the cutting edge of the newest generation of SF writers, if you want to see why the “young turks” of SF are doing with the genre, Bear is a strong choice for you to find that out. In an publishing age where Fantasy is ascendant over its technologically inclined brother, its refreshing, encouraging, and joyful to find a writer who does write fantasy (e.g. The Promethean age novels), but who is also willing to write darned good science fiction, with no apologies. And more importantly than just being willing to write science fiction, but to be very good at it.
Barq’s Root Beer has a tagline: “Barq’s Got Bite!”. I would say, however, having read a number of her novels, and especially after reading this one, that “Bear’s Got Bite!”.