I read this book as the January book for the 2011 Women in SF Book Club, being organised by TJ at Dreams and Speculation. I’d not read any novels by Elizabeth Bear before, although I’ve enjoyed a number of her short stories and she’s also one of the contributors to Shadow Unit, which I adore. I didn’t know what to expect from this story, but it wasn’t what I got.
In short: I really enjoyed it, and am totally cut that it’s the first of a trilogy! (I thought I was doing so well with avoiding those.) I enjoyed the characters, and I thought it was a really interesting take on a not-original (which doesn’t mean it’s not interesting) SF trope.
At length, with spoilers:
I didn’t read the blurb before reading the book. The cover gives some indication of angelic types mixed in with technology, which I thought was a fascinating idea, and then the angel comes in right at the start – sans wings. Perceval, the angel and a woman despite the name, is a really fascinating character. She’s conflicted, she’s loyal, she never gives up despite an enormous amount of wearing down and opposition.
There are numerous other characters, but most of them are really only bit parts with one, maaaybe two exceptions: definitely Rien, maybe Jacob Dust. It’s Rien’s point of view that we get most often; starting as a lowly servant, discovering that she’s Perceval’s half-sister and actually of some consequence, and going and having some adventures – she is, I think, more approachable as a character than Perceval, who despite having some flaws and being somewhat tormented is more symbolic, more… a talisman. Rien is earthier, more grounded, and I think more approachable. Dust, on the other hand, is not very likeable or approachable at all; he’s quite a quirky take on the slightly crazed AI which I really enjoyed (I enjoyed the whole idea behind and consequences of the fractured AI, actually).
It took me a while to realise that the setting was a generation ship; right at the start I wasn’t even sure it was set in space, and I was wondering whether this was going to be some planet where the people had reverted to a faux-medieval existence with just a few people still taking advantage of old tech. Which is kinda true, but everyone is aware of the fact that they live on a spaceship, even if they don’t necessarily do anything directed connected with that reality at the moment. It’s a really clever setting: being on such an enormous ship means there’s not the claustrophobia of space travel in a tin can, and there are more options for moving around – and for having two antagonistic parties at each others’ throats but far enough apart that they have to actually work at reaching other. But it also means that vacuum is a genuine threat, which is a problem you never get dirtside… and it means you have the option of moving the whole damn ship, too (hence the trilogy).
I still haven’t quite figured out whether there were more Arthurian links than just Perceval’s name (and she does talk about being a knight errant… oh and there’s also a Tristen), and I somehow missed them. The third book is apparently going to be called Grail, so maybe there are – or maybe they will be more developed over the next two books.
Finally, let me say that I really didn’t expect the conclusion, which is a pretty awesome outcome when I read a book.