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Dust

September 16, 2013

On my way out the door one day, I picked up Dust by Elizabeth Bear, the sole criteria for choosing it being that it was the smallest paperback within reach.

Dust starts out like a fantasy novel, so I was reading it with only a modicum of interest, and then it slowly became clear that the characters had been evolving over the years they’d been stranded in a broken spaceship, and I got hooked.  This is where it started to happen:

“A little later, as their host fussed with a self-heating kettle and water and pills and packets of herbs, she gathered her energy enough to take an interest. Deft hands sorted and sifted and poured. Perceval was fascinated.

‘Are you a healer, Mallory?’

‘No,’ Mallory said, and lifted a pair of cups. ‘I am a necromancer. Here, drink up.’”

Little is what it seems to be in this world, however. The fantasy plot takes place in what turns out to be an increasingly detailed science fiction world. What looks like a basilisk turns out to have been a laser-cutting torch. Who calls self a necromancer turns out to be a keeper of recorded memories.  Dust turns out to be a kind of guidance system, but with religious overtones:

“’Dust?’ It sounded religious to her. We come from dust. We are stardust. We are dust in the wind.

Were these not words from ancient hymns?”

At the end of a quasi-Arthurian quest, various kinds of beings that have evolved separately all over the ship must cooperate in order to save their ship, called the Jacob’s Ladder. They decide to “wait until the waystar went supernova, then catch a ride on the magnetized wave front of the exploding debris.”

In the end, one of the characters has to submerge her individuality for the good of the ship, becoming literally what River Tam claims to be in the final Firefly episode:

“She felt the world all through her, or her all through the world, and the ship and its denizens were no different. She felt it lacking, felt where it was weary with metal fatigue, battle fatigue, the incessant scrape of entropy.”

The Jacob’s Ladder gets away, and there’s a sequel. I might look for it, as it’s clear that this world has more secrets than could be revealed in one tightly-plotted book. Plus, this is a new spin on necromancy, so I may need to keep checking it out.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. September 16, 2013 7:18 am

    Dust now always makes me think of Philip Pullman.

    • September 17, 2013 1:26 pm

      Yes, I might have had that association when I picked up this book.

  2. September 16, 2013 10:46 am

    Necromancy pays? Sounds iconoclastic.

    • September 17, 2013 1:26 pm

      Iconoclasts welcome…but in this case, necromancy seems to be more of a metaphor.

  3. September 16, 2013 12:21 pm

    I was going to make the same comment as Harri3tspy and it seems as though Bear may be using the concept of dust in a not dissimilar way to Pullman. At one point he was supposed to be writing ‘The Book of Dust’ but nothing has ever come of it.

    • September 17, 2013 1:25 pm

      I looked it up, and it does seem that Bear might have been influenced by Pullman’s sort of dust, since The Golden Compass was published in 1995 and Dust in 2007. I love early Pullman, but thought his material was getting him carried away by the time he wrote The Amber Spyglass.

      • September 17, 2013 1:28 pm

        Yes, I completely agree with you. It took him much longer to write than the other two and he hasn’t written anything of real substance since. I hope he isn’t written out. Have you read the Sally Lockhart books which he wrote before His Dark Materials? They aren’t fantasy but still worth a look especially the third one.

        • September 17, 2013 3:38 pm

          Yes, we liked the Sally Lockhart books, although we never could get our kids to read them. We liked Count Karlstein, Clockwork, and I was a Rat! when the kids were younger.

          • September 17, 2013 3:40 pm

            ‘Clockwork’ is fascinating and I love ‘I Was A Rat’. We had a superb stage production of that in Birmingham earlier this year. My godchildren loved it.

  4. September 16, 2013 8:00 pm

    Coooooooool. Sounds amazing. I will read just about anything that gets described as “tightly plotted” because tight plots are kinda my jam.

    • September 17, 2013 1:27 pm

      I especially like a good, tight plot when I’m aware there are other books in the series.

  5. September 17, 2013 9:35 am

    Aw, do you not love to find an unexpected necromancy word/theme in a book? 🙂 I always think of you when I come across the word.

    • September 17, 2013 1:28 pm

      Yes, I do love it. I believe it’s just for ME!

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