New Amsterdam is billed as “the hardcover debut” from Elizabeth Bear, who had been winning awards for her short stories and novels before this work was published in 2007. Though not exactly described as such, New Amsterdam is a compilation of six short stories, each connected to and increasingly dependent upon the others as the overarching plot progresses. While each story is ostensibly a mystery which requires investigation and the use of forensic sorcery in order to arrive at each solution, characters and world-building are the primary focus of Bear’s writing. For the most part, this works well, though there are some pieces which could have benefitted from closer authorial scrutiny, and I wish the concept of “forensic sorcery” had been brought to the fore.
New Amsterdam takes place in a parallel world to our own at the turn of the 20th century: airships soar across the Atlantic Ocean, wampyr hide in the shadows (while werewolves were brought to extinction a few centuries before), many colonies in North America still belong to their original founding countries, and Native countries exist in an uneasy peace alongside the Europeans. Magic and sorcery are very real and very dangerous, requiring extensive training in special schools just to cast a simple spell. Some people, like Detective Crown Investigator Abigail Irene Garrett, use that training to solve crimes of both magical and mundane nature. Some, like Don Sebastien de Ulloa, use the benefit of their long vampiric existence to the same end. It is a pleasure to watch the two of them bring their considerable talents and keen intellects together in order to bring criminals to justice. Their professional partnership rapidly grows into a more complex relationship, but I am happy to report that their emotions never eclipse their mutual respect.
DCI Garrett and Don Sebastien both have their own paramours and adversaries, all of whom come with their own desires and political machinations and histories. On Garrett’s side, there are Richard, the Duke of New Amsterdam; Peter Eliot, the Mayor of New Amsterdam (not a romantic partner); and Prince Henry of England. The Duke, a Royalist, and the Mayor, a Colonialist, each want her to help him oust the other and support his side in the coming war of independence. Each of these men is a little too nakedly ambitious and manipulative for my taste — I half expected each of them to twirl a moustache as they attempted to maneuver Garrett to their own ends. Don Sebastien has Jack Priest, a charming young man who claims to be British; Mrs. Phoebe Smith, a Bostonian novelist; and Epaphras “David” Bull, a vampire who follows Sebastien to the New World. Of these three, Jack is the most fully fleshed-out and interesting: he assists Sebastien with criminal investigations, is a skilled social chameleon, and is quite brilliant in his own right. Mrs. Smith and David, sadly, function as little more than plot devices when they appear, serving to do little more than drive circumstances in a particular direction.
Characterization of secondary characters is not as strong in New Amsterdam as it would become in later Bear novels. There are places where the seams show, so to speak: dialogue or actions which occur just to move the plot along or to reveal certain aspects of a primary character, which gives off a “debut novel” feeling. There are a lot of good, strong elements in these stories to make up for the weak points, but I do think that packing magical crime-solving and alternate world history and global politics on the brink of war into less than 300 pages may have been too ambitious. I would have preferred to see more of this mirror-America, particularly the magic system of the Native nations, rather than watch Sebastien’s court pack up and take an excursion to fusty old Europe. I would have loved to see something fresh and new, rather than gas lamps and cobblestone streets.
Additionally, I wanted way more forensic sorcery than I was given. Science and magic merge in a wholly plausible way in these stories. It’s so much fun to read about a world in which fingerprints and aura patterns are kept in databases; in which spells can be cast to force a corpse to bleed at the touch of its murderer; in which two seemingly unconnected objects can, under the right circumstances, kill a man in a locked room. If CSI: New Amsterdam was a show, I would watch it every single week. But as the stories go on and new characters cycle through, the magic takes a backseat, to the point where the mysteries to be solved sometimes felt like an afterthought. Since “forensic sorcery” was the point which sparked my initial interest in the book, this was a definite disappointment for me. The heavy focus on character interaction could also have been spread out a little more into establishing setting or political intrigue.
As it is, New Amsterdam is a book which could have been really remarkable, but instead was generally enjoyable. I’m glad I read it, especially since Bear’s latest novel, Karen Memory, was published in February of this year. There are a lot of early indicators of Bear’s talent with characters, setting, and inventiveness with regards to magic and technology. The forensic sorcery was amazing, and Garrett and Sebastien liven up every scene they’re in. Even with the flaws, this is an excellent “debut” effort, and I was so glad to see some of the beginnings of a career which I enjoy and admire.
There are few imaginations like the one Elizabeth Bear has. Every time I open one of her books I’m amazed not only at the inventiveness of her stories, but also their uniqueness. No two books of hers are the same, and New Amsterdam retains her trademark originality and creativity throughout its six interconnected short stories.
In an alternative 1899 where the British Empire still holds sway and the Dutch ceded New Amsterdam (never to be called New York) to England during the Napoleonic Wars, a zeppelin carrying an ancient vampire floats through the sky. From this synopsis alone, you should be able to deduce the collection’s steampunk/supernatural mash-up, wrapped in murder-mystery plots and the obligatory cameo from Doctor Tesla.
The stories revolve around two main characters: Abigail Irene Garrett, a “forensic sorceress” in service of the monarchy, and Sebastien de Ulloa, an ageless vampire. Other characters are comprised of members of the former’s household and the latter’s entourage, and together they set their considerable experience to solving political intrigues (which usually involve at least one murder) in New Amsterdam.
Bear is not a writer who leads her readers by the hand; spelling things out as she goes. You have to pay close attention to what’s going on, as though she’ll lovingly describe the brocade on a curtain or the way a wine glass catches the light, the plots remain complex and opaque. My advice is to take your time reading New Amsterdam — enjoy the twisty stories, but also the world that Bear has crafted in all its turn-of-the-century detail.
It’s nice to have a female protagonist who’s a mature woman instead of a twenty-something, as it gives her knowledge and experience more weight, and Sebastien actually acts like someone who has lived for hundreds of years instead of your usual sulky-teen vamp. Bear also presents an interesting portrayal of magic — one that has rules and codes, but also an innate sense of unknowability — and utilizes it in an innovative way (in the pursuit of solving murders). I’d love to be able to put “forensic sorceress” on my resume.
One odd thing is that each story introduces the characters anew, as though afraid we’d somehow forgotten them since the last chapter. It’s strange for a writer that otherwise treats her readers intelligently, though if you treat each story as a novella and not a chapter, it’s not as glaring.