(review originally posted on my livejournal account: http://intoyourlungs.livejournal.com/15198.html)
I read Bear's work back in January for the Women of Science Fiction book club (Dust) and to be completely honest, it left me reeling. I ended up liking it, but it was HARD book to read. I learned very quickly that Bear's work is very "sink or swim", in that she plops right into the middle of a story and you have to really pay attention to what's going on or are you are going to be LOST. However, this doesn't make Bear's work bad, or impossible to read; she's a great author who I have a lot of admiration for, but I can't bring myself to seek her out. This is mostly because I have to work so hard to read her books, and I guess that makes me a lazy reader, but as much as I like her stuff, I can't get *excited* about it.
Anyway, all this is to say that yes, I was kind of excited to read this book because I knew I was going to be in for something completely different, but I was also a little apprehensive as well because I know Bear's stuff is harder to read than most.
Well, I felt pretty much the same about this book as I did with Dust: it was really good, and very well-crafted, but it was hard to understand at times and I found myself backpedaling a lot so that I could wrap my mind around the plot.
I think part of what confused me with this book is my complete ignorance of Norse mythology -- I didn't even know that valkyries were angels for crying out loud! -- which is at the core of this story. However, once I got into the swing of the plot, the bits of Norse mythology come into play very smoothly, and my ignorance to it became less and less of a problem. With that being said, I want to point out right off the bat that if you like/love Norse mythology, check this book out! If you're not into it? I had a bit of trouble at first, but it's not something that can't be overcome, so don't let that shy you away either, because you'll be missing out on a really neat story.
The Norse mythology and the magic is what really grounds this novel as a fantasy, but it's got all kinds of sci-fi elements in it as well as the story largely takes place in the very distant future. In Dust, the plot was science fiction, but she blended all kinds of fantasy elements and tropes into the mix to create something completely new and different. Bear's genre blending is awesome stuff, and she does it really well. It threw me off a bit at first (even though I was kind of expecting it, given the cover) but once I got over that, I absolutely loved it.
The characters are what really make this book though. I really liked Muire, and I just wanted to see her be happy and to find the redemption that she sought and thought she would never find. Mingan was ambiguous, and I could never decide if I wanted to peg him as a villain, or an ally. I really wish I could've learned more about him, but the sequel to this novel, which is actually a prequel, is all about Mingan, Muire and Strifbjorn, so I guess that's where I'll get that fix. Cathoair was also a broken character I really wanted to fix, poor guy. Pretty much everyone in this novel is sympathetic, even when they're not exactly relatable.
The magic present in this world was really neat too, the best example of this being the Technomancer. My favorite bit of the novel was finding out the true nature of the unmans and what happened to all of Muire's brethren. I am curious as to why only Strifbjorn was reborn as a human though. Why weren't any of the others reborn as humans before the Technomancer could remake them into her unmans? These questions didn't detract from my overall enjoyment of the story though.
I also really liked the magic that Muire and Mingan had, of being able to assimilate a person into themselves, and how they did that to each other. Really neat stuff.
Like I mentioned before, the plot itself is pretty confusing at times, but I've come to learn that that's just a staple of reading Bear's work (re: sink or swim feeling when reading). I knew this going into this novel though, so I made sure to pay extra attention to everything, and even went so far as to take notes (though mostly for names and stuff, which are mostly Icelandic so they were harder to remember.) I even went back and re-read the first chapter at one point, so that I could better understand what was going on. Bear also throws around a lot of terms and doesn't explain what they mean. It took me forever to realize that unmans were anthropomorphic animals, for example. Once I got myself oriented into the plot though, and became familiar with the terminology of the world, it was smooth sailing. The story is pretty engrossing (the end of the world, again!!), and I absolutely needed to know how it was going to end and how the characters were going to fare.
I can't forget to mention the writing, even if it's just briefly: Bear's writing is amazing, and incredibly atmospheric. The first chapter in this book is just... I don't really have words for it. I wasn't able to really appreciate it the first time I read through the chapter because I was too busy trying to make sure I absorbed everything, but my second read-through of it really blew me away.
Final Verdict: While this novel can be confusing, it's still very good. Bear is a really talented writer, and while I don't think I ever see myself seeking out her work, I won't hesitate to take an opportunity to read it. This novel is an awesome mix of fantasy and sci-fi (while still being exclusively fantasy) with a really engrossing plot that'll have you turning the pages (once you understand what the hell is going on.) The characters are sympathetic and multi-faceted, and some of them ambiguous. Overall, it was a solid read, but I recommend it with reservations. If you want an easy breezy read, you will NOT find it here, but if you want something completely different and don't mind working for it a bit, than one should be able to find a lot of enjoyment in this.