Dust, by Elizabeth Bear

DustA generation ship, disabled, limps in orbit around an unstable binary star that could self-immolate at any moment. For five hundred years, Engine and Rule have established quasi-medieval fiefdoms with the Exalt – whose bodies are augmented by a nanotech symbiont – ruling over the Mean. And the artificial intelligence that once controlled the ship’s systems has splintered into ‘angels’ – chief among them Samael, the angel of death (or life support, at any rate) and Jacob Dust, the angel of memory.

Knight-errant Perceval loses a duel – and her wings. She’s taken prisoner by Ariane of Rule. But the Mean servant girl assigned to take care of her is Rien – her long-lost sister. (This book had me at ‘maimed wingless girl knight-errant,’ and never let go). Before long they’ve escaped from Rule on a quest to find their father and prevent the coming war between Engine and Rule.

This is a book stuffed with Cool Bits, especially if you’re me, but even if you’re not. I think it’s terribly neat that there’s medieval window-dressing and a fantasy quest plot, all packaged – with perfect rationality – in a rigorous science fictional universe. There’s a basilisk! There’s a hermaphroditic necromancer! There are peaches that contain the memories of the dead! And at the same time, all of these Cool Bits are pointed at heavy, intense themes and heartbreaking storytelling. Bear is interrogating power and privilege and love and submission and domination and – as always – what it takes to face terrible choices with honor, dignity, and integrity.

This is also the first Elizabeth Bear novel I understood all the way through without having to read anything twice over. I like the opaqueness in some of her work, but I also like the clarity in this one.

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