Oct 21 2015

New Amsterdam by Elizabeth Bear

There isn’t a zeppelin on the cover to let readers know this is an alternate history, but by way of making up for it, Elizabeth Bear sets the book’s first story on board hydrogen-filled German airship. The Hans Glücker is on its way from Calais to the jewel of British North America, the eponymous New Amsterdam. Bear introduces “Don Sebastien de Ulloa, known to the Continent as the great detective,” the first clue that the story will feature a murder on the airborne occident express. There are fourteen passengers, plus a crew of less than a dozen, and introducing the rest of the cast allows Bear to sketch out the world while penciling in the characters’ backgrounds.

Britain and France are engaged in a long-term struggle for supremacy. Both retain colonial empires in North America into the 20th century. France is a post-Napoleonic republic, while Britain was ruled for many years by an Iron Queen (more Gloriana than Victoria). Germany is not a major power in Europe (may not even be unified), but Imperial Russia is. And by the way, Don Sebastien is a vampire, and magic works. Both are disreputable, and in the world of New Amsterdam the craft work of magic is giving way to the predictability and power of science and industry. (One of the later stories suggests, however, that the two might work together, with magic supporting Monsieur Tesla’s broadcast electrical power in Paris.)

The second story introduces Detective Crown Investigator Abigail Irene Garrett, sorceress to the British Crown, thorn in the side of the independence-minded Mayor of New Amsterdam, close confidante of Duke Richard, the King’s man in North America. She is a hard-boiled detective, a hard-drinking forensic investigator whose service to truth is not always welcome in the corridors of power. She is called to the scene of a grisly murder that bears signs of having had a supernatural aspect. Not least that the rest of the family of the deceased has vanished, seemingly into thin air, but in a world where demons may come when summoned, thin air is not the worst place a family could vanish to.

In due time, the paths of the two detectives cross. It is a fraught first encounter; personal and professional rivalry mix with DCI Garrett’s faithfulness to the law, a law that has made vampirism a capital offense in the colonies. But the first murder is not the last, and the two investigators’ abilities complement each other. Garrett contrives not to know Don Sebastien’s nature for a certainty, and the two of them work to unravel a plot that threatens unrest in the colonial city.

Bear has put together a charming and convincing world, one that credibly retains older aspects of British governance into the twentieth century, and mixes that society with occult and technology working alongside each other. Don Sebastien and Lady Abigail are the most fully developed characters in the book, but through the six linked stories that form New Amsterdam, quite a few others emerge as interesting and rounded people, each with their own desires, conflicts, and views on the action.

Each investigation is a mix of mystery and adventure. Taken together, they show how change is coming to the fictional world of the colonies, political change that is coming as it so often does in our world: through a mix of personalities, miscommunication, ambition, and social forces beyond any individual’s command. Bear’s setting can support such larger considerations because she has drawn it carefully and populated it with people who are recognizable in their drives and contradictions, while being shaped by the circumstances of the alternate world.

I am sure that I missed layers of meaning that Bear has put into the stories. New Amsterdam was my “in between” book, one that I read mostly on my phone in the snippets of time here and there that would otherwise have spent in idle waiting. I’m sure that it would hold up well on re-reading, in a more concentrated way. There are doublings in the titles of the stories. The first is an unusual word meaning “shying away from light,” while the last is “Lumere;” the second and third stories are “Wax” and “Wane.” There are surely more parallels among the characters and their actions that I did not spot the first time through.

Even as superficially as I read New Amsterdam, it offered exciting action, multi-faceted characters who grew and changed over the course of the book, and a convincing world in which many more stories could be told. Four more books — Seven for a Secret, The White City, Ad Eternum and Garrett Investigates — continue the tales begun in New Amsterdam. I’m looking forward to spending more time in this world.

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