Chill, by Elizabeth Bear

This is definitely a second-book-in-the-series, not that you can tell that from the cover – which must have been annoying for some people. As such, there are spoilers for the first book, Dust.

Chill picks up only hours after the end of Dust – Tristen Conn awakens in an acceleration tank, after the colony ship has had to accelerate at drastic rates to escape a supernova. The first part of the story therefore follows the experiences of Tristen, Caitlin, Benedick and Perceval as they accustom themselves to their new roles, new relationships, and – in Perceval’s case – new status. They do not do this unhampered, of course, because Arianrhod – she whose actions contributed significantly to the disasters of Dust – is also abroad, and again contributing to chaos. Much of the novel is in fact concerned with chasing Arianrhod, with Tristen and Benedick’s desires for vengeance running hot. As they do so, they encounter new areas of their world/ship, Jacob’s Ladder, that both broaden and confuse their understanding of the world and its purpose.

There is a lot of chasing in this book; a lot of running, some hiding, the occasional ambush. One consequence for the reader is in demonstrating the sheer size of the ship. However, this is not done as well as I would have liked, as Bear shows little interest in emphasising the size or making it feel as seriously large as it must be. This is problematic because without it, I couldn’t help but feel that Tristen, Benedick and their companions were doing little more than running through corridors, either aimlessly or only to advance the plot by allowing them to meet new and difficult characters. Although they clearly have a destination – or, for most of the story, an objective – it did make the book feel a bit like it was running on the spot. On the other hand, they do meet new and interesting characters (just wait for the orchids), and in the process we learn more about the characters (especially Tristen), the history of the Conns, and the world/ship. Not quite enough that everything makes sense – and I still have some trouble with the Conn family tree, which makes things a bit confusing sometimes – but enough that some pieces from Dust begin to fall into place, and other conclusions are suggested.

More is learnt about the Conns and the world/ship through those who stay behind, too. Caitlin – Chief Engineer, doing what she does best – learns all sort of interesting and uncomfortable things from the resurrected Jsutien, once an Astrogator. Meanwhile Perceval, who has had hardly any time to come to grips with the fact that her sister-love Rien has been subsumed into the new world angel, is forced to start acting as Captain – which means interacting with the new angel, whether she likes it or not. Despite her preeminence in Dust, and her new role as Captain, Perceval actually doesn’t appear as much as I had anticipated here in Chill. This lack contributed to my feeling somewhat unfulfilled by the novel as a whole. Even when she was the focus of particular sections, the reader is not given the same access to Perceval as in the first book. This is not a result of shifting focus; this actually contributes to the pace and excitement of the story, I think, as well as its richness. Instead it felt more like Bear wasn’t sure how to deal with the new Perceval – and that she was more interested in the chase scenes. Perceval’s scenes felt a bit cursory.

It might sound as if I didn’t enjoy this book very much, but that’s actually not true. I like the characters, and especially learning more about Tristen and Benedick, who were fairly opaque in Dust. Bear does some interesting things with the world/ship as a whole – and although she doesn’t always see them through, offering them more as tantalising possibilities, I’m hoping that the third book (Grail) will bring things to a magnificent conclusion. I generally enjoy Bear’s dialogue and her descriptive passages as well. So I’m definitely going to read the third book.

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2 responses

  1. [...] Gunn and Geoff Ryman; Connie Willis – Even the Queen; Octavia Butler – Bloodchild Alex: Chill, and Grail, Elizabeth Bear; The Lifecycle of Software Objects, Ted Chiang; Welcome to the [...]

  2. [...] As the third in the series, this review contains some spoilers for the first two books (Dust and Chill). [...]

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