fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Elizabeth Bear DustDust by Elizabeth Bear

While Dust is categorized as science fiction, there were actually a lot of familiar fantasy elements in the book, which I found a little bit surprising but quite enjoyable. For example, a number of medieval concepts are employed in the novel, such as a ruling family of nobles; politics regarding bloodlines, successors and inheritances; knights; castles; swords as the preferred choice of weaponry; chivalry; and so on. Then there’s the story, which features a servant girl who discovers she’s someone important, a couple of quests including one to prevent a war between the House of Rule and Engine, and the presence of near-omniscient angels who play the role of “meddling gods.” On top of that you also have the Garden of Eden and other Christian references, prophecy told through a deck of cards, the appearance of a dragon, a basilisk side character and a necromancer…

If Dust had been a straight-up fantasy novel, it would be hard to ignore all of the tropes that Ms. Bear uses, but because of the sci-fi setting, they actually complement the story. And that’s where things get interesting. For starters, the “world” that the book is set in is actually a gigantic generation colony ship called Jacob’s Ladder, which, over the centuries, has forced evolution on its occupants through nanotechnology colonies and symbionts, resulting in the angelic-like Exalts. Overseeing this world are “angels,” who are actually fragments of one large entity called Israfel. The problem is that the star system Jacob’s Ladder has been orbiting is on the verge of going supernova and to have any chance of survival, the ship must be moved to a new location. In order for that to happen however, the ship has to be repaired first and all of the Israfel fragments united as one. That means war between the different remnants — namely, Jacob Dust the Angel of Memory, Samael the Angel of Biosystems and Asrafil the Angel of Blades — each of whom have their own selfish objectives. Tangled up in the middle of this conflict is the Exalt Perceval Conn, the key to success for whichever angel comes out on top, but it’ll actually be Rien the servant girl and her companions who determine the fate of Jacob’s Ladder.

Jacob's Ladder (3 book series) by Elizabeth Bear (Author)Besides the fun story that mixes traditional fantasy with space opera adventure, Dust also features interesting characters. I liked Rien the most because she changes the most throughout the novel being Remade from a common Mean into an Exalt, consuming the memories of a Chief Engineer, and discovering a family she never knew she had. Of the other two main characters, I thought Jacob had the most entertaining scenes, especially his interactions with the other Angels, and I enjoyed the struggle that Perceval faced with Pinion, a set of sentient wings that act as her ‘guard and warden.’

A lot of the supporting cast, including Lady Ariane, Benedick Conn, and Tristen Conn, were pretty generic and undeveloped, but I was fond of Mallory and the basilisk Gavin. Additionally, there were some interesting SF concepts in the book, such as the symbiosis between the nanotechnology colonies and their hosts; the deadly unblades that create unhealable wounds; the way Angels and Exalts can “consume” others to gain memories and knowledge; and the whole idea of a ship existing as a world complete with different cities and societies.

As far as the writing, there’s not much to criticize. Dust is deftly paced and plotted; the main characters are well-constructed; action scenes are dutifully exciting; and the prose is descriptive, elegant and accessible. Furthermore, Ms. Bear is pretty open when it comes to sexuality. Dust includes a Kant (an ungendered character referred to as sie or hir), a hermaphrodite, and relationships that would be considered taboo in our society. In fact, the only thing that I can really complain about is the cover art, which doesn’t do the book justice, but I don’t believe Bear had anything to do with that!

Dust is the opening volume in the Jacob’s Ladder trilogy. While the story stops at a climactic point, Bear resolves a lot of the novel’s subplots and I have a feeling that Chill is going to have a much different vibe. I can’t wait to see what happens with it.

~Robert Thompson

fantasy book reviews Elizabeth Bear DustI greatly admire Elizabeth Bear’s world-building here, but I didn’t feel much for her characters (with the exception of Gavin the basilisk who I particularly liked). The audiobook, produced by Recorded Books and narrated by Alma Cuervo, was a nice way to read this story. I’ll give the next book, Chill, a try and hope I find those characters more engaging.

~Kat Hooper  

Published in 2007. On a broken ship orbiting a doomed sun, dwellers have grown complacent with their aging metal world. But when a serving girl frees a captive noblewoman, the old order is about to change… Ariane, Princess of the House of Rule, was known to be fiercely cold-blooded. But severing an angel’s wings on the battlefield — even after she had surrendered — proved her completely without honor. Captive, the angel Perceval waits for Ariane not only to finish her off — but to devour her very memories and mind. Surely her gruesome death will cause war between the houses — exactly as Ariane desires. But Ariane’s plan may yet be opposed, for Perceval at once recognizes the young servant charged with her care. Rien is the lost child: her sister. Soon they will escape, hoping to stop the impending war and save both their houses. But it is a perilous journey through the crumbling hulk of a dying ship, and they do not pass unnoticed. Because at the hub of their turning world waits Jacob Dust, all that remains of God, following the vapor wisp of the angel. And he knows they will meet very soon.


  • Robert Thompson

    ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

    View all posts
  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

    View all posts