All the Windwracked Stars

by Elizabeth Bear

Cover image

Series: Edda of Burdens #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: November 2008
ISBN: 0-7653-1882-2
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 368

Buy at Powell's Books

It's the end of the world. The valraven Kasimir searches through the snow and freezing bodies of the battlefield, looking for his rider, his wings shredded and bleeding in the snow. Muire, a waelcyrge (valkyrie), returns to the battlefield in disgrace, having not stood with her sisters and their chosen warriors in the last battle. Both are driven by duty and despair, and Muire additionally by guilt and shame, and both are expecting to die.

Neither do, and nor does the world, against all expectation. Men rebuild, although the world can't sustain it. Light remains, although dwindling, and so do Kasimir and Muire and one enemy: the Grey Wolf, who is waiting and hoping for the clean end of the world. They meet again 2300 years later, in the midst of a less mythological and more human end of the world, in the last surviving city following an apocalypse of war and environmental destruction. It's a a city held alive by the magic of the Technomancer, policed by animals genetically modified to bipedal form, and protected from the waste of the world by a magical shield. A city in which the Grey Wolf has started killing people by stealing their breath.

I've had a soft spot for Norse mythology since Marvel Comics exposed me to a much-mutilated version as an impressionable youngster, and I've been looking forward to reading this book for more than a year. Bear couldn't have designed a mix of ideas better suited to my genre interests if she tried. The world is built from future technology, partly failing, living side-by-side with unexplained magic in that effortless way that it does in comics universes. Norse mythology provides grand melodrama and hints of the numinous, giving the world a sense of precariousness, vastness, and hostility that I believe fits science fiction far better than the basic pettiness and domesticity of the Greek or Roman system. Kasimir provides just a hint of animal companion fantasy, but more complicated and more difficult than the typical soul bondings. And there's loads of well-justified and non-paralyzing angst, a mythological system to work out while reading, some neat hints dropped for those familiar with Norse mythological structure (I loved the touch of placing Midgard in the past), and some wonderful characters.

As you can probably tell from the description, there's a lot of stuff in this book. It's one of Bear's earlier novels, heavily revised and sold after works written later, and it has the vibrancy of an earlier work. I see a common (although not universal) pattern in early works in the SF genre: they're often packed full of ideas, sometimes more than the story can bear, as if they'd been building up behind a floodgate until the author could get them into a novel. An early novel opens the floodgate and the ideas come pouring out in an unrestrainable cataract. This doesn't always make a good novel — the ideas can feel gratuitous, misplaced, conflicting, or just too scattered and confusing — but it produces a sense of creativity and glee that I find infectious.

All the Windwracked Stars has that gleeful abandon tempered by more practiced skill. It has the packed, idea-rich feeling of an early work, but revised and tightened by a mature writer who has more control of plot and structure. There are ideas here that, if described in isolation, I would have expected to fail: one of the main characters is a catgirl, for example. But the story meshed for me, even including the angst, the genre mashup, the anthropomorphic animals, and a few other land mine ideas that could easily have blown up my suspension of disbelief. I'm not sure it would work for everyone (anyone who seriously engages with Norse mythology gets free credit from me), but I think Bear did a good job pulling the ideas together and keeping the story disciplined.

Given that, I wanted to love this book. I came close. But, alas, I could never could bring myself to care about the Grey Wolf. Since he's the major ambiguous villain of the story, the primary plot driver, and the force that knocks down the precariously balanced world of the other characters and compels them to deal with the world as it is, this is a problem. He gets a lot of screen time, and I didn't want to read about him. Nor, worse, did I want to read about the way Muire reacted to him. At times, I thought he made the other characters stupid.

I'm conflicted on whether this is just personal dislike — an element of the book that happened not to work for me — or a problem with the presentation. It may be that, despite what I say above, there was one idea too many. Bear plays with the role of valkyries as choosers of the slain by adding a vampiric relationship with final breaths and souls, particularly in the dark mirror of the Grey Wolf as a symbol of the other side of the not-last battle, and this leads to sexual tension mingled in vampiric-style feeding. I generally dislike vampires about as much as I like Norse mythology, so this addition did little for me. The Grey Wolf's motivations other than the sexual angle were vaguely interesting, but I never felt like I got enough of them to make a connection. I get that he's lonely and is carrying his own baggage, and he has a lot of history with waelcyrges, but I never got engaged enough with his story to care about it. (It may be that some of his perspective is saved for a sequel.)

On a similar, although lesser, note, I could have done with less of Cathoair, a male prostitute who's also a central figure in the story. I didn't mind him as much as the Grey Wolf, but I quickly tired of his petulant attitude. This one I know is personal taste: he expresses some character traits that show up in Bear's other novels, and they're never my favorite parts of her books.

The other characters, though, are great, and largely make up for those two misses. Muire does a lot of angsting and hurting other people in her own pain, but she does so in ways I can empathize with and I still liked her. The flashbacks of her initial arrival and early days in the city helped a great deal with that; I think those were my favorite part of the book. And Selene, the aforementioned catgirl, is a startlingly good character with complex motivations and a truly interesting story, not to mention some of the better-described mergers of animal and human behavior I've read.

All the Windracked Stars is a solidly good book that I wanted to like even more than I did. The first chapter is pure brilliance, and the conclusion and most of the major action is gripping and page-turning stuff. I thought it dragged a bit in scenes focusing on the Grey Wolf or Cathoair, but others may not be bothered by the same things I disliked. Even if you are, this book is worth seeking out. It's the first book of a trilogy, with enough of an open-ended world to support it, but it has its own satisfying conclusion.

At least read the first chapter, which used to be available from Elizabeth Bear's web site (but appears to be gone now) and is probably available as a Kindle preview. It's the sort of emotional heartache and struggle with personal damage that Bear does particularly well, and I think it will give you a good feel for the best parts of this book.

Followed by By the Mountain Bound.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-02-12

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