New Amsterdam

by Elizabeth Bear

Cover image

Series: New Amsterdam #1
Publisher: Subterranean
Copyright: 2007
ISBN: 1-59606-106-4
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 267

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Elizabeth Bear has published a near-future science-fiction trilogy with cyberpunk trimmings, an impressively complex urban fantasy, and a farther-future political SF adventure with twisted utopian trimmings. New Amsterdam is a collection of six linked short stories featuring mysteries, a crown sorceress and investigator, and vampires. That's range.

The stories in this collection are both amusing and fascinating for how much they take from the current insanely popular vampire detective subgenre and how much they turn the tropes of that subgenre on end. The sex, intrigue, gruesome murders, political struggles, and vampire supremacy intrigues are here. Abigail Irene is even frequently snarky (although without first-person narration or the hard-boiled style). But Bear uses a turn-of-the-century Victorian setting instead of modern-day, breaks down distinctions between vampire and human politics, and complicates and deepens the stories with an exotic alternative world in which vampires are known to exist, the American Revolution never happened, England continues to be at (near) war with France in the early 1900s, and (of course) there are airships.

I was struck time and again while reading these stories by how much more complex life is when the plot doesn't smooth problems away. Most of the mysteries in this book are political or have political ramifications that the characters cannot ignore. There is war, divided loyalties, and dangerous secrets, and characters don't escape consequences easily. Jealousies and worries are less petty, deeper, and more complex. Despite less angst per page than most vampire detective novels, Bear's characters hurt more, run into deeper conflicts, make harder choices, and make more irreversible choices. The characters are more mature and don't waste their emotional energy on some of the pettiness one expects in this subgenre. Nothing swept me away with page-turning excitement, but what happens in the stories felt richer and more real.

New Amsterdam is vampire fiction in an understated, mature tone, mixed with some nasty conflicts of loyalties and set against a rich background with steampunk touches and a quaint scientific take on magic. This is an excellent collection for someone who bounced off Laurell K. Hamilton looking for more realism and less whining, or who wants to read about what supernatural detectives might do after they've grown up and gotten over themselves.

"Lucifugous": The only story of the batch in which Abigail Irene doesn't appear, this is our introduction to the vampire Sebastian and his companion Jack. It's a murder mystery on an airship during a trans-Atlantic crossing, and despite the lack of Abigail Irene, it's also a good introduction to the tone of the book. Sebastian is a classic detective who reminded me of all the Holmes-like deductive sleuths, but he also has to be on guard against discovery as a vampire. Vampires aren't entirely outlawed, but they're at best heavily frowned upon. The investigation plays out through close observation of the characters accompanying him on the crossing, mixed with hiding his nature and amused observation of his companion. Jack plays the assistant, but with a delicious homoerotic twist that's far more intriguing than streetwise muscle. The mystery itself I found a bit light, but the tone is wonderful. (7)

"Wax": Here is our introduction to Abigail Irene, Crown Investigator, and to the city of New Amsterdam, where the Duke who represents the English crown is frequently in conflict with the Mayor, who favors secession. Abigail Irene also meets Sebastian, and after initial annoyance at his meddling in her investigation and his reputation as a great detective, the predictable happens (with, I thought, rather little motivation). I thought this was the least satisfying story of the book. It sets the scene and introduces us to Abigail Irene's tangled love life, but otherwise felt a bit long for what it accomplishes. (6)

"Wane": This is much better. For one, it's shorter and rather more to the point. For another, the mystery is more deeply involved with both politics and Abigail Irene's past and loves. I do like the way her relationships are shown in the context of her work. I'm not quite sure how Bear pulls off a simultaneous portrayal of Victorian morality and a detective who is both the mistress of a Duke and the lover of a vampire, but she does, and it creates a dark tension of danger below the surface of the story. The conclusion of this story is vitally important for the rest of the book. (7)

"Limerent": The political tension increases here, and Abigail Irene finally meets Jack and begins to learn more about Sebastian and his life. This is a bit of a bridging story, building tension before matters start to explode, but it features some strong dialogue and a quite satisfying mystery. (7)

"Catoyant": I think this was the strongest story of the collection. Vampire politics come into play for the first time, but again Bear deals with this with more subtlety than one normally sees and mixes in deeply conflicting emotions. I liked her portrayal of the relationship between vampires the best of any that I've read. It avoids both simple alliances and simple animosity (and most of the simplistic predator stereotypes). Again, there's a lot of great dialogue, excellent characterization, and character development that's realistic but nicely understated. The ending is sharp, painful, and difficult, bringing to a head the emotions of the story without undermining them. (8)

"Lumière": This story, in conclusion, is just fun. The cast travels the world again, providing the opportunity for a change of scenery and a different supernatural problem, but the delight of this story is Tesla. If you're going to invent an alternate world in which there is airship travel and scientific magic, you have to throw in broadcast power. Tesla is a wonderful character, and his equipment adds a nice steampunk contrast to the supernatural problems of Paris. There's enough of an ending to provide some closure for the book, but quite a lot is still left open. I'd enjoy reading more about these characters. (7)

Followed by Seven for a Secret.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-06-30

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21