by Elizabeth Bear

Cover image

Series: Jenny Casey #1
Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: January 2005
ISBN: 0-553-58750-1
Format: Mass market
Pages: 326

Buy at Powell's Books

This is the first book of a tightly linked trilogy, closely enough linked that you probably don't want to read Hammered without Scardown and Worldwired. Hammered doesn't quite have a cliff-hanger ending — there's a bit of resolution — but it feels like the end of the first part of a larger book.

Jenny Casey is a war veteran, a war veteran who was almost killed in a crash and whose body is now half cybernetic, who carries brain implants for enhanced combat reflexes, and who is recovering from addiction to various military drugs. She's a Canadian war veteran of various UN peacekeeping missions, including some to a war-torn US. She's also a veteran of some nasty corporate exploitation. Now she's living in a garage in Hartford, friends with both a local gang lord and a local police officer, trying not to sleep, and staying well away from her past.

Bear brings out her background slowly and naturally throughout a story that thrives on the strength of its characters. It's about Jenny's nightmares and degrading implants, military drugs that show up in Hartford where they shouldn't be, a corporation pulling on the tangled threads of Jenny's past, an AI researcher caught up in the same corporation, and an AI free in the Internet, but mostly it's about the people. Bear has a wonderful talent for characterization and a set of protagonists with a complex past and varied motivations. Jenny is a particularly memorable SF character, avoiding both the coming of age and the experienced expert stereotypes. The sections told from her first-person perspective are the best parts of the book.

Perspective in general, though, is one of the few problems. I love the vividness of Bear's characters, but I wish they hadn't all gotten a turn at tight third person viewpoint. The camera jumps through most of the fairly large cast over the course of the book, making it feel fragmented and diluting my identification with the characters. The viewpoints do weave together into a satisfyingly complex plot (although the hissable villains are, at least so far, a touch cliched), but still I think some of the shifts were gratuitous.

There are a few other minor problems. I can understand the appeal of an AI based on Richard Feynman, but it felt a bit fanboyish. It's justified somewhat by the characters; the fanboyish feeling could be attributed to his creator. Still, it made me vaguely uncomfortable to read. I think Feynman is too recently dead and I've read too much about him to be entirely comfortable with him as a fictional character, even with the AI remove. The section headings were also problematic; I'm not sure if it was the too-small font in the mass-market printing or the amount of information shoved into three- or four-line headings (date, location, times), but too much of the information wasn't necessary and I then stopped reading them and missed information that occasionally was. It's minor, but it became distracting.

Niggles aside, though, this is excellent character-driven SF. Jenny Casey is the star of the show and wins over the readers as much as she wins over the other characters, but even aside from her, there are few weak characters in the book and almost none taken from the standard stock. The plot isn't quite as strong as the characters, but the rich world background makes up for it, particularly since Bear lets her characters live in it without stopping to explain all the details to the reader. I like that the characters have made some hard choices and done things that aren't particularly admirable, and Bear creates some hard moral dilemmas for them that may lead them down the same paths again. And while most of the book takes place in vivid urban grime, it ends with an excellent sense of wonder moment and the promise of more to come.

This series won awards for a first novel, and deservedly so. Plot can be strengthened and perspective improved; Bear has a gift for description, mood, and character establishment without infodumping that makes me think her books are only going to get better. I'm eager to read the next book.

Followed by Scardown.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-07-07

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