Reviewer: Jake Beal

Author: Elizabeth Bear

Published: 2005

Reviewed: 2006-01-25

Publisher: Bantam Books

Books don't blow me away very often. This one did. I'm rocked back
on my heels right now, coming to terms with what I just read, because
it was damned good, and I want to try to explain it properly. I read
Ms. Bear's first book, "Hammered" earlier this year, and I liked it.
When "Scardown" appeared on the shelf, I figured it would be a good
novel as well, and indeed, it picked up right where the other one left
off, moving along in a fairly obvious way at first.

Then it changed on me, and I didn't even notice. My heart is still
beating fast from the roller-coaster ride I just got off. I was
casually reading this morning, as I headed for the T, and some more as
I headed home from work. I wasn't really planning to read it tonight,
but it got its hooks in me, and the pace just kept stepping up on me.
Two and a half hours of breakneck reading later, it's done and I'm
going to have to re-read it again someday. It's going to be hard to
write this review without spoilers, but you deserve it, so I'm going

How do I love thy writing? Let me count the ways.

First, the characters. Ms. Bear has a talent for painting characters
in a sentence or two while leaving their humanity intact. There are
no NPCs in her world. A security guard smiles and picks a bit of lint
off someone's collar, and we get just a glimpse of the full depth. A
painfully awkward autistic flits with socialization in a page or two
interspersed here and there.

And when Ms. Bear kills a character, they go out like a light. No
drama, no heroic last words, but the ripples spread out like a rock
thrown in a pond, changing things around them. And God, she made me
cry. It's still making me cry. Authors don't do that to me.

Second, the humanity. All of Ms. Bear's characters bleed, but none of
them angst. They spend a lot of time figuring out how to cope with
their lives, stringing together glittering moments of glory,
interludes of warmth and companionship, bleak moments of despair, and
sharp fragments of pain. All of them, even the bastards. You can't
keep yourself from sympathizing because, after all, we've all been

Third, the scale. Ms. Bear pulls of the extremely difficult trick of
writing about real characters involved in global events. The scale of
this book is much wider than that of the previous novel, and yet
somehow the Prime Minister ends up getting as much screen time as
Jenny's cat---which emphatically does not have a personality: no
McCaffrey syndrome here! Yet the characters are neither in control of
the situation nor swept helplessly along by events. Moreover, their
personal issues loom large in their lives without overriding their
involvement in the plot: the characters know damned well how little
they count for, but that doesn't stop them from caring. And that's
even without counting her delicate but frank handling of human

Fourth, the plot. I didn't really expect this one, because the
previous book was much smaller and more personal. But in this one,
the epic level steps up beyond the stratosphere both literally and
figuratively. I mean, one of the characters even comes out and says
"The whole world just changed", and it's appropriate. And yet, there
are almost no action scenes, despite all the action that takes place.
And a lot of it caught me by surprise, which is fairly hard to do with
honest tactics---I'm not talking about novels where the author's
deliberately trying to pull one over on you, it's more that there were
many ways the situations could progress, and it was often one I hadn't
noticed but seemed obvious in retrospect.

Ms. Bear is also not afraid to throw away a plot when it's no longer
relevant. There are dozens of dangling threads which won't be
resolved, and the reader doesn't care any more for the same reasons
the characters don't---it's clear there are answers, and it would be
interesting to know what they are, but they're just not as relevant as
they once were.

Fifth, the humility. If there's one thing that this book doesn't say,
it's "epic". Yes, that contradicts some of the things I said above,
but it's still true. Reading this book reminds me of turning points
in history which I have witnessed---the space shuttle Challenger
exploding, the towers coming down on September 11th. Big things
happen in the world, but they aren't heroic epics, and they don't have
a meaning. Meaning is what happens when individuals react to them,
and their impact is measured in each person's life. And so it is in
this book.

I loved this book, and I'll be looking for her next, eager to lose an
evening to it. I highly recommend it for all the things that a picky
connosieur of science fiction like myself has come to expect in my
literature. And I still love the Quebecois French, even if it means I
lose some of the dialogue.