Seven for a Secret

by Elizabeth Bear

Cover image

Series: New Amsterdam #2
Publisher: Subterranean
Copyright: 2009
ISBN: 1-59606-233-9
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 128

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Seven for a Secret is a novella published in book form by one of the better-known SF small presses (Subterranean Press), which does a lot of these sorts of editions. As such, I'm sure it had a very limited audience; not a lot of people are going to be willing to pay hardcover price for a novella. Part of my reason for buying novellas in this format is to financially support both the author and an alternative market in small presses for things that can't get regular publication. But, regardless, here's a review in case someone else also feels inspired to pay a bit over standard price for short fiction, or in case the same work is reprinted elsewhere later.

This is a sequel of sorts to New Amsterdam, a collection of linked short stories that introduces the reader to Crown Investigator Abigail Irene and the vampire (wampyr) Sebastian. Seven for a Secret picks up many years later, showing Abigail Irene as an old woman, living with Sebastian in an England that has been conquered by the Nazis. Sebastian encounters, and runs interference for, two British girls (lovers) who are part of a Nazi youth organization but are out after curfew. In so doing, he notices that they smell of wolfskin.

At novella length, there obviously isn't a lot of development here. It's divided between Sebastian and Abigail Irene's reactions to age and mortality (more touching, I think, if one has read New Amsterdam but effective regardless), and an investigation of who these girls are. The story is told half from Sebastian's perspective and half from the perspective of one of the girls, who are (as one might quickly guess) somewhat more than they appear. The plot is very straightforward, so the strength of the book is carried by the intensity of the descriptions and characters. There, I think Bear does an excellent job.

The cover of Seven for a Secret is, in my opinion at least, very bad. I think the art style is unnecessarily ugly and far more horrific than the text, but worse, it gives the strong impression that this is some sort of zombie story. It's not. Ruth and Adele are something considerably more subtle and more interesting, and in the short course of this story, Bear touches on topics ranging from cultural brainwashing (reminding me of Jo Walton's much longer treatment in Half a Crown) to honor, personal loyalty, and revenge. Abigail Irene and Sebastian appear here, but Ruth is the center of the story. The ending twist is far too good to give away, but suffice it to say that Ruth starts out looking like a victim but ends up having considerably more agency than it may first appear.

Neither the story nor the ethical stance are that deep; this is, after all, novella-length. But the writing is excellent, the character portraits are refreshingly straightforward for Bear, and the story is full of little quirks that made me smile and think, "Yes, this is what people are like."

I'm not sure I can recommend buying this in hardcover to the average reader (particularly now that it's out of print), but it's a good story and definitely worth reading if you find a copy.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-10-14

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21