Elizabeth Bear,
New Amsterdam
(Subterranean Press, 2007)

I have only recently become aware of the work of Elizabeth Bear, and it has been a very happy experience. New Amsterdam, her latest, is no exception.

The story revolves around Sebastien de Ulloa, amateur detective and vampire; and Lady Abigail Irene Garrett, Detective Crown Investigator and sorcerer. The story begins as Sebastien, in company with his companion and lover Jack Priest, is en route to the New World city of New Amsterdam. On the way, of course, he solves a murder. He then intrudes himself on one of Garrett's investigations. In the course of events, they run afoul of politics, first in New Amsterdam and then in Boston, winding up in Paris at the beginning of a war between France and the British Empire, solving a series of grisly and arcane murders on the way.

With her usual facility, Bear has created an alternative universe in which British expansion in the New World was checked by an alliance of French and Native military power; the Aztec Empire is an independent nation, as are the Iroquois. Russia is the third party in an uneasy European balance of power.

Bear also creates a coherent and believable history for Sebastien and other supernatural creatures in general. Most notable is the emotional truth of Sebastien's existence -- he doesn't remember the village where he was born some thousand years or more before, nor even his own birth name. He has become adroit in shifting identities, seeing each as meeting a need for a period of time, then as something to be discarded as needs change. He also lives with the constant awareness that he can't stop himself from caring and that his only reward will be, in some form, loss of those he loves. Abigail Irene also lives with some hard realities, due to her various loyalties -- to the Crown and to the men she has loved, who include Prince Henry of England and, ultimately, Sebastien.

While New Amsterdam has a lot of the ambience of Conan Doyle's stories of Sherlock Holmes, what it reminds me of most is Randall Garrett's stories of Lord D'Arcy. In that case, we have a universe in which the British Empire has remained under Plantagenet rule, the great political rivalry is with the Kingdom of Poland, and Mechicoe is a British duchy under the rule of a native duke. The murders, however, are similarly arcane and the methods used to solve them equally so, although the emotional tone of Bear's book is rather darker -- what we are pleased to call "more realistic."

I find it hard to call New Amsterdam a "novel." It's rather a series of closely linked short stories with shared characters and a coherent sequential timeline. As noted, the characters are the prize here, which seems to be one of Bear's strengths; she is obviously a close observer of people and has an uncanny ability to bring their inner lives home to us. Add to that her strong, fluent prose and a series of intriguing puzzles, and we have a winner.

by Robert M. Tilendis
14 April 2007

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