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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

All the Windwracked Stars, by Elizabeth Bear, Tor, 2008, $24.95.

ZoŽ's Tale, by John Scalzi, Tor, 2008, $24.95.

The Iron Hunt, by Marjorie M. Liu, Ace, 2008, $7.99.

ELIZABETH Bear's latest novel (or at least the one I'm reviewing, since I think by this time there are three in total) is hard to characterize. Or perhaps hard to pin down. It is not, strictly speaking, fantasy; it is not, strictly speaking, science fiction. It's some blend of both that involves so many tropes from either genre—all of them leaning on the echoes of myth and legend that she's heard and made her own—that it should fall apart under its own weight. But it doesn't. That's the marvel of All the Windwracked Stars.

This book starts with the end of the world. No, really. One could assume, given the starting point, that the book would then delve backward into the past that led to that point. It doesn't. Instead, it gives the three survivors of a bloody battle a moment of bonding in, yes, a smaller bloody battle, and it leaves them changed. That one of the three, Kasimir, is a two-headed winged creature that chooses a rider for life doesn't diminish this; that another, Muire, is waelcyrge, the least of her sisters, but the only one to survive, hints at the Norse myths and legends that have all but ended with this battle.

Muire stays to bury the dead, while the third and last survivor, silent and unseen, settles down to wait for the last of the world to flicker out and die. He is Mingan, and he has seen the death of worlds; he settles in, here, and he waits.

The world takes a long, long time to die: history unfolds, technology changes, cities and civilizations rise and fall. Mortality is not an issue for any of the three, but their world has been swept aside and they drift in the new one, observing, interacting.

And the new world? As science-fictional as they come, but with the added kick of technomancy, used to support the last of humanity on a world which will otherwise destroy life.

Here, in this final stronghold, Muire, Mingan, and Kasimir will meet again, seeking different things, and bringing the pain of their shared history and shared anger to bear. They will discover the souls of their fallen, reborn as humans, or almost-humans; they will discover the truth behind the end of the world, and the one possible chance they have to save it. And they will do this as broken, scarred individuals, because there are no whole people in this book. Bear makes this work, depriving anyone of the simple status of either hero or villain by revealing enough, in layers, that all we're left with is fact and our own judgments.

But this is not really why you should read this book; you should read it because the entire thing—from beginning to end—pushes sense-of-wonder buttons so hard you almost want to hit the pause button, forget about the plot, and look. Bear holds nothing back, and everything that she pulls into her story just gleams with that special wonder of discovery.

I could not put this down. If you liked Dust, this novel is, in my humble opinion, better.

*†††† *†††† *

ZoŽ Perry, the title character of ZoŽ's Tale, should be familiar to readers of John Scalzi's works. The adopted daughter of John and Jane Perry, she's a teenage girl with attitude, a certain charm, and two deadly alien bodyguards who record her every move (except on the rare occasions when she forbids it). The bodyguards, members of the Obin race, have been hers for most of her life, and it's a life that includes being the sole human survivor of two alien attacks on an orbital space station, and then being the eventual linchpin of an important Colonial Union peace treaty with the Obin.

So it can be taken for granted that her life is not what could be considered normal. First introduced in The Ghost Brigade, she followed her parents into The Last Colony, and in that latter book she performed a pivotal negotiation upon which the whole story depended—and she did so entirely offstage. This was not to the liking of some readers, and Scalzi took it on himself to write ZoŽ's Tale in response.

ZoŽ is not in the driver's seat, and she's not terribly interested in the day-to-day run-up of establishing a colony. She would like to be a normal girl, if a deeply sarcastic one. The deep sarcasm, of course, is one of the delights of a Scalzi narrative, and it's here in abundance, as are the usual quirky characters and the way Scalzi undermines stereotypes and gently forces us to examine our own initial reactions. Some of the seat-of-the-pants chutzpah is missing, given ZoŽ's age and mindset.

A lot of the book is about ZoŽ's friendships, her first boyfriend, and her adjustment to life in a colony that was created solely to be a big, red flag to the bull of the Conclave's military fleet. It adds to and expands on things set up in The Last Colony, giving the day-to-day life, and the questions it raises, more play and more grounding.

The book comes into its own when ZoŽ is sent by her father to talk with the general in control of the Conclave, the military enemies to the human Colonial Union. There, without her parents or her friends, she's forced to accept what being the effective Chosen One of the Obin has meant to her, and what it might mean in the future, and it directly affects her ability to save the people she loves.

However.Ö

This book is a companion piece to The Last Colony. It doesn't truly stand alone, so if you haven't read The Last Colony, read it first. Honestly. Because if you read it first, you'll enjoy ZoŽ's Tale, and if you don't, there's a good chance that the abrupt end of the novel will frustrate you. It's a good place to end a companion book, because the end result of all of the various political machinations that afflict the colony of Roanoake, in the hands of John Perry, is already detailed in The Last Colony, and as such, it's not necessary here.

And it's not here. Don't start here. But if you've read the other novels in the John Perry series, this is a great place to end.

*†††† *†††† *

Marjorie M. Liu is well known for her Dirk and Steele paranormal romances—none of which I've read. This is my first foray into Liu's work, and it seemed a reasonable place to dip a toe in because it's the first book in a new series. I should say up front that I'm one of those readers who is just a little bit tired of pages of sex threaded around the bare bones of plot, and I worried a little when I picked up this book that The Iron Hunt would end up being one of those.

I was dead wrong. This is straight-up urban fantasy, and not only is sex absent, but in those cases where it could actually fit into the story without the plot twisting and bending to accommodate it, Liu closes the door to give her characters some privacy. What's left is all plot, which made me happy.

Maxine Kiss is the last of a line of demon hunters, in a world where demons have been slipping between the cracks of the Veil that was created to separate the demons from the rest of the world. She's been raised and trained, by a mother on the move, to do nothing but be a demon hunter. Her mother was the Hunter before her, and her mother's death can be laid directly at Maxine's feet, because the Hunter is given demons to aid her in her struggle, and those demons stay with the Hunter until the Hunter's daughter is strong enough to bear both their power and their weight. These demons—the boys, as Maxine affectionately calls them—reside on her skin in the form of flat and changing tattoos during the sunlight. For all intents and purposes, they make her invulnerable. It's at night that they take on separate, living forms, so it's at night that she's vulnerable, although they're still there to aid her.

When "the boys" decided that Maxine was strong enough to carry them, they abandoned her mother, and her mother died almost instantly thereafter. Maxine is now the Hunter, and she knows that one day she'll bear a child who will in effect kill her in the same way. Because that's how Hunters have always died. They've also always lived in isolation. But Maxine is different.

In a short piece that appeared in the anthology Wild Thing, "Hunter Kiss," Liu apparently introduces both Maxine and her partner, Grant, an ex-priest who can see the aura of demons and who can sing in a way that heals and brings peace. I say apparently because I haven't read this either. I'm going to try to hunt it down, because I'm curious to see how Grant and Maxine came together—but not knowing doesn't actually take away from the novel.

Suffice it to say that when The Iron Hunt opens, Maxine is living in a shelter with Grant and some of the people for whom he cares. Although she knows that the Hunter always lives in isolation, she wants—and needs—friends, and she's accepted this, although it weighs on her, making her doubt her fitness and her strength.

When the police come to the shelter, she's a bit surprised; when they come looking for Maxine Kiss, she's worried. She uses aliases, and that's her real name—and to complicate matters, they're looking for her because her real name was scrawled on a newspaper in a murdered detective's pocket. She's never heard of the murdered man, but the fact of his death and his profession draw her out—with the boys—in search of answers.

What she discovers is evidence of her own ignorance. The demons she knows are not the only demons in existence. The prison dimension of the Veil is about to crumble, after millennia of slow decay, and demons whose power and motivations she can't even begin to comprehend are beginning to leak out into our world. Some of them are looking for her, but not for the obvious reasons.

Maxine Kiss is an interesting addition to the urban fantasy genre. The Iron Hunt raises more questions than it answers, and if it has one weakness, it's the end; the conclusion almost feels anticlimactic, given some of the reveals. But with that reservation? This was fast-paced, entertaining, and a whole lot of fun—the book moves, and I'm looking forward to seeing where Liu goes with the series.

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