Review: New Amsterdam by Elizabeth Bear

29 07 2008

On a weekend trip to visit my grandparents in upstate New York, I read New Amsterdam by Elizabeth Bear. It’s a collection of episodes about an ancient vampire-detective named Sebastian and Abigail Irene Garrett, forensic sorceress for the Crown. They go about solving all sorts of mysteries, mostly magical and gruesome. In this alternate history, the sun never set on the British Empire. At the dawn of the 20th century, tensions are heating up overseas in the colonies between the royalists and those who advocate for home rule. It is an exciting time for the first vampire to arrive in the New World.

The collection reads almost like a fantasy-based Sherlock Holmes novel, or maybe a very sophisticated Encyclopedia Brown book, with magic. In each episode, Abigail Irene, Sebastian, and the rest of the cast are faced with a challenging mystery, usually a messy and magical death. Using state of the art sorcerous techniques and good-old gumshoe investigating they invariably figure out the answer. It’s pretty fun to read if you like that sort of thing, and might remind you of various incredibly formulaic detective stories, almost.

Unlike Holmes, Brown or other traditionally episodic detectives, the characters of New Amsterdam have highly complicated and constantly changing relationships with each other and other powers in their world. Their actions in one story have reverberations down the rest. Relationships between characters change as they solve mysteries, which affects the way they approach problems. While each story stands on its own, the overarching narrative and character arcs make what could be just another detective story come to life.

I want to focus on this point a little more. Taken individually, each story in Bear’s New Amsterdam is interesting, if formulaic. The characters are detailed enough that in no story are they entirely flat or completely predictable, though they do have their patterns. I’ve read a number of similar episodic detective stories, but this is the first one that has a complicated character arc unfolding over the course of the larger narrative. It’s so complicated and subtle that I didn’t realize a character had been growing toward a particular point for about three stories until one line which made me go, “Woah. That makes sense!”

Bear’s vampires are another of those super erotic types, definitely ripe for gross cliché. Yet, I think she handles them well. Instead of sexily seducing young pretty things, her vampires form courts of supporters who sustain them. It’s something that readers of large amounts of vampire literature may be familiar with, but I wasn’t. While this could just be a major undead-sex-fest, Bear actually builds the most interesting characters out of interactions between members of Sebastian’s court. It’s only a minor undead-sex-fest—the vampire’s bite causes a most intense and nearly-orgasmic experience. If you were thinking, “My twelve-year-old might like this,” you should figure out if it will make them uncomfortable first.

However, Bear writes really strong female protagonists. Abigail Irene is not a damsel in distress. She handles spells, murdering beasts, and pistols, skills all young girls should learn. In addition, Sebastian has a remarkably healthy attitude toward intimate relationships, multiple and long term relationships, for a vampire. Definitely worth exposing your kid to these types of characters early and often.

In short, New Amsterdam is a nearly formulaic detective vampire orgy that’s likely to rattle your neo-post-victorianist sensibilities. It’s fun, and candy-like—but a sophisticated hard candy that you kind of have to suck on a little before you can figure out what flavor it actually is, not to mention that it’s got some good vitamins. Reading this book isn’t exactly vegging out, because Bear is really smart and it shows in her writing (which is a good thing!). If you’re looking for a good four-hour car-ride book or one-chapter-each-commute book, and don’t have something super important like homework to do, I recommend reading New Amsterdam.

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