Grail

by Elizabeth Bear

Cover image

Series: Jacob's Ladder #3
Publisher: Spectra
Copyright: 2011
ISBN: 0-553-59109-6
Format: Mass market
Pages: 330

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This is the third and final book in the Jacob's Ladder trilogy that started with Dust. While it takes place some time after the end of Chill, this book does not stand alone. You do not want to read this book without having read the earlier books in the series, and you probably want to have read them recently. More on that in a moment.

Chill ended with some stabilization of the situation aboard the Jacob's Ladder and a clear goal. At the start of Grail, we've skipped over decades of continuation of that situation. I'll be elliptical to avoid spoilers for earlier books in the series: Grail not only continues the complexities of internal ship politics, but finally introduces outside observers into the series.

But before the ship's crew we've come to know over the last two books meets those outside observers, we have more setup, and sadly the opening setup leaves a lot to be desired. The persistent flaw in this series for me is that the angst, emotional trauma, and brave struggles through internal pain are sometimes laid on with a trowel. It feels at times like Bear is trying too hard to give the emotions, pains, and relationships a deep resonance, to tap mythic images and roles, to give them Significance. Sometimes this works. The start of this book was not one of those times; it felt labored and strained. I do think it accurately represents the self-image of the characters, but the obsession with knights and tigers and so forth gets a bit tiring.

Part of the problem for me was that I again had huge problems keeping the characters straight and remembering specific details of the previous books, which means that the references to past emotional pain often went over my head. I can't believe I'm saying this about an SF novel, but I could have really used a dramatis personae. I appreciate Bear's desire not to tell us the obvious or to just reiterate parts of the previous book, but even though it had only been six months since I read it, the references were so partial and glancing that I couldn't follow them. Characters in these books rarely talk about anything directly, which is great if what they're alluding to comes to mind and frustratingly baffling if you don't. I had this problem with Chill as well.

By the middle of the book, I was dubious about this one. The recurring characters seemed overwrought and frustratingly oblique. The new viewpoints added some interesting and useful background, but were also a bit bland. Then they meet, and Grail suddenly gets considerably better.

One of the great recurring themes of science fiction is the clash of cultures and perspectives, where the protagonists come face-to-face with a culture that thinks in some profoundly different way and has to try to understand. Usually, this is told exclusively from the perspective closest to the reader. Here, Bear does something very tricky: she tells that interaction from both perspectives in interleaving scenes. And in the observations of each side, she shows the reader things that are foreign and strange in the other side, leaving the reader feeling almost equally sympathetic and equally alienated from both sides.

This works brilliantly in the context of this series. We've gotten so fully immersed in the world of the Jacob's Ladder that their perspective has become normal. Bear shakes that up with a well-chosen outside perspective and shows how strange and foreign what we've gotten used to really is. This sort of alienation, and of respinning the familiar through alienation, is a classic strength of SF, and I've rarely seen it done more effectively than in those few chapters.

Bear doesn't quite manage to keep that momentum through the end of the book, but the second half is much better than the first, and I found the final resolution of the series both unexpected and profoundly moving. There is a little bit of deus ex machina in places, but it's in service of an emotional ending that I wanted badly. And one character got an ending that was so perfectly in character and so beautiful that it had me smiling for some time after I finished the book.

This is a flawed and somewhat uneven book, but it has some fantastic high points. I think that's a good summary for the series as a whole: uneven, and occasionally too wrapped up in its own emotional impact, but in the moments that it hits its stride, it's great stuff that's worth going out of your way to read. The world background is well thought out, complex, and satisfying, particularly in this book where the camera pans back to let the reader see the larger context. If you like a bit of high fantasy in your space opera, give this series a try. But I strongly recommend getting all three books and reading them back to back, or at least close together, so that you can remember the fine detail of previous books as well as the characters do.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-06-10

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21