Scardown

by Elizabeth Bear

Cover image

Series: Jenny Casey #2
Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: July 2005
ISBN: 0-553-58751-X
Format: Mass market
Pages: 368

Buy at Powell's Books

This is the second book in the Jenny Casey trilogy, which is more like one long book than a trilogy with separate conclusions. There are some (occasionally awkward) recaps of the previous book, but really you don't want to read it before reading Hammered, and you're going to want to have Worldwired on hand when you finish.

Bear shifts the series into a remarkably different gear with Scardown. The touch of wonder at the end of Hammered leads into a story that's far from the streets where Jenny's story began, and yet the characters still fit and the progression is natural and smooth. I'm very impressed; this sort of increase in the scope of the story, changing the placement of the goalposts entirely, is hard to pull off this smoothly. By the end of this chapter, the stakes are higher than I ever would have imagined at the start of Hammered.

The pacing, though, starts off choppy. It takes a while for the characters to settle into their new lives and roles after the events at the end of Hammered, and in Scardown each scene felt even shorter and the perspective shifts more frequent. This was still a bit distracting, and a lot of characters get their turn at tight third person, but I think I'm starting to understand why Bear chose that structure. The setup required at the start of Scardown puts the reader in danger of being bored, but no scene lingers for long enough to get tired of it. The scene and perspective shifts provide an energy of their own, a scattered energy but one that helps pull the reader through the slower part of the plot. And once the action heated up, I stopped noticing the scene shifts.

By heating up, I mean scorching. Bear doesn't pull her punches, her excellent characterization made me care about the characters when they faced impossible dilemmas, and people die. This is not a happily ever after story; this is a triumph (maybe) at high cost story, and one that packs a punch. The ending packs the punch of a first book of a trilogy, rare indeed in the second book. I think it's the substantial change in scope and stakes Bear pulled off that let her avoid second book drift and unsatisfying endings.

It's hard to talk about plot details without spoiling either this book or Hammered, but I think I can discuss obliquely several points I particularly admired. First, Bear deals with a nearly omniscient, omnipresent AI about as well as I've seen it done. Yes, Richard still occasionally feels like the Voice of the Author, plot steward and font of exposition where needed, but most of the time he doesn't. He retains a distinct personality, Bear does a great job at presenting a stream of problems that are neither contrived nor amenable to AI solution, and I thought Richard successfully walked the tightrope of having more data and more processing power but not necessarily more wisdom. I'm still a bit bothered by having him based on Feynman, but I've gotten used to it as Richard the character has received more independent personality growth.

Second, Bear's plot leads up to a very common SF scene at the end of Scardown, and I was impressed by the amount of credit and room she gave to her readers. To tell you exactly what scene would be a significant spoiler; suffice it to say that Bear avoids the thorough detail, multiple images, and dramatic set pieces that most SF would handle this with. Instead, she sketches out the details with admirable restraint, lets the reader's imagination fill in the detail from innumerable previous handlings of the same material, and adds the emotional shock by letting her existing, established characters react on camera. The result was far more emotionally effective than I would have expected, far shorter, and far less repetitive. Nicely done.

Third, Bear proved in Hammered that she can write war-weary veterans with compelling verisimilitude; in Scardown, she proves that she can write kids with the same insight and not make them annoying. Coming from me, the latter is high praise; even with a few scattered moments of adolescent angst, I always enjoyed reading about the kids. Several of Bear's descriptions of Leah are just striking, catching and describing in a few sentences traits I've seen but hadn't put words to. Her kids aren't stereotypes; they're mercurial, inexperienced, insecure, scared, brave, and difficult, and I couldn't have asked for better establishment of their relationships with the adults of the story.

One can tell when a writer pays close attention to craft. I can read and enjoy books where they don't, but it adds new delight to a story when I find myself pausing over remarkably apt word choices or memorable descriptions. Scardown (and Hammered, for that matter) felt like each sentence received attention, and it makes a significant difference in the reading experience. My biggest complaints are at the macro level: I had difficulty settling into the beginning of the book, and even at the end, plot threads are only barely staying under control. At the level of scene, detail, and craft, this is excellent work.

If you liked Hammered, this is even better. Keep reading. And be warned: This is an Empire Strikes Back book. It reaches an emotional climax but not a conclusion, and the plot is still very much in play. I recommend acquiring Worldwired before you start reading, since you're probably going to want to move immediately into the third book.

Followed by Worldwired.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-07-11

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21