Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Hammered by Elizabeth Bear

*Spoilers Below*

It's funny. I got a fair ways into this book, and had a moment where I realized that Jenny Casey is very much like a character a friend has been playing in a game I've been running, about revolution on Mars. Said friend has never read Elizabeth Bear, to the best of my knowledge, but the synchronicity was startling. I've told her now she should read this. I think she'd get even more out of it than I did.

Which isn't to say I didn't get a lot out of it. I tend to love Elizabeth Bear's work. Compared to some of her other books, the structure of this one is a bit odd, and the ending a bit well, not even anticlimactic, (although there's a climax right near the end - yes, I went there,) but more just a break before the action will pick up in the next book.

This is where I have to confess that I've been reading this series in my occasional ass-backwards manner. Somehow, I picked up the third book in the series years ago while on a visit to Toronto. Why I picked it up I have no idea - was I at a used bookstore? Was this the only one of the series that the dearly departed World's Biggest Bookstore had in? At any rate, I read that one first, and so I know that by the end of the second book, shit is going to hit the fan. The rather tension-free ending of the first will not carry into the second.

And that makes it easier. I think if I was coming into this series cold, I'd be a little confused by the ending, and if it were my first Bear book, perhaps a bit put-off. Because I do know she's building to world-shattering events, I'm good. But the ending has no real rise and fall of action. I'm trying not to say exactly why for fear of spoilers, but it doesn't.

However, the book is well written, and thoroughly enjoyable, and I think Bear is trying something here I've rarely seen. There are three main figures from her past that Jenny identifies as villains. One is her sister. One is a man from her past. The third is a military commander, large as life, and present, trying to draft her back into the Canadian military. (As a Canadian, it's probably obligatory to mention how much I enjoyed that the book was at least half set in Canada, featuring a great number of Canadian characters. We're easily pleased, we Canadians.)

This book, however, does not build to a showdown with each nemesis. In fact, one is killed by outside forces during the book, and Jenny discovers another of her bugbears died decades ago. She's been carrying around the presence like a shadow, but the actual figure has long since departed the scene. In that way, it's a meditation on damage and hurt, and how the way we carry these things around may have little to do with the world as it is.

Jenny is a damaged character, both physically and mentally, from years in the Canadian military, serving as a peacekeeper in dangerous parts of the world, including where she lives at the start of the book: Hartford, Connecticut. That should give you an idea of the world as it has come to be here. She lives on her own, avoiding people she knows care about her, suffering increasing pain from her cybernetic arm and eye. She's a great character. It's done without an ounce of self-pity, just strong determination, even when she's entirely wrong.

A bad batch of drugs shows up in Hartford, and local gang leader turns to Jenny for help. A narcotics officer was also killed. Jenny's sister comes to town. Meanwhile, in Toronto, Jenny's old army buddy Gabe is employed by one of Jenny's three nemeses. His two children are along for the ride, but one of them is making an interesting friend online. Elspeth is released from the jail she's been held in for decades because she wouldn't turn over a working AI intelligence to the military, based on Richard Feynman. Richard's still out there. And they're all interested in the real reasons behind the military pouring money into the new pilot program. That's all the plot I'm giving you.

The characters in this one are great, and that makes up for the strange narrative structure. And trust me, big things are coming in the next book. Or at least, huge things have happened by the time the third book opens, so I presume they take place in the next book. It all comes down to Jenny. And she's an amazing character.

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