Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Book Review: Grail and the Jacob's Ladder Trilogy by Elizabeth Bear

Grail, by Elizabeth Bear, is the concluding book in her trilogy about the Jacob's Ladder, a generation spaceship traveling to colonize a world around a distant star.  I became interested in Bear when I picked up Dust, the first book of the series.  Dust amazed me with its unusual depictions of high technology, genderqueer characters, and epic queer romance set at an action-adventure pace.  Chill suffered only slightly from middle book syndrome, delivering solid plot progress and character development with plenty of suspense and conflict to keep the reader engaged.  With Grail, Bear wraps up the story well, while providing a fascinating outsider's view of the generation ship's crew and characters.

The first two books of the series introduced us to artificial intelligence nanotech computers in the form of angels, symbiotic nanotech that makes the ruling class of the Jacob's Ladder literally blue blooded and immortal, and a sentient spaceship containing a hothouse of forced biological evolution.  There is class conflict, familial conflict, political conflict, and the perpetual fight to survive while surrounded by the Enemy--space itself.  Bear's generation ship is hundreds of years out from Earth, crippled by a terrible accident, and filled with enough technological potential that evolution has skewed off in bizarre directions, such as the accidental creation of sentient, mobile orchids who are obsessed with watching 20th century television recordings.  There's a gender neutral necromancer who nurtures the memories of dead crew members in the fruit of a orchard of life and a laser welding tool that takes the form of a basilisk whose eyes will cut you.  The speculative ideas are legion and never cease to amaze.

For me, however, it's the characters who really drew me in.  The family that rules the spaceship is as neurotic, self-destructive, and combative, and evokes the dysfunction of my own biological family.  The protagonists are both tyrants and the oppressed.  The ship's crew has broken into a variety of factions, so we read not only about the royalty, but also discovery what it means to be a resisting green anarchist in such an environment.  Most of all, I adored Rien, who falls in love with a noble techno knight, despite her beginnings as an ordinary maid, and then gets caught up in a quest to save the world.  I cried real tears for Rien at more than one point.

In the final book, the outsider view is my favorite part.  Grail begins as the spaceship is finally approaching its destination colony world.  Shockingly, the crew discovers that some time after they departed Earth, technology there developed to the point that space travel is now much faster, and a group of colonists has leapfrogged the Jacob's Ladder to settle on the planet they call Fortune.  The characters we meet from Fortune provide an amazing foil to the society that has evolved in the hundreds of years that the generation ship was traveling between stars.  The action and adventure never lags, while we are confronted with questions of what it means to be human or monster.

If I have any criticism, it is merely that Grail could have been twice as long.  Bear has more fabulous science fiction ideas that any author I've read recently.  The questions she's asking feel very relevant to our times.  Her style is a double-edged sword--easy and exciting to read, but sometimes I was left wanting deeper explorations of the philosophy and less explosions and betrayals.

If you enjoy science fiction at all, pick up this series.  Bear's reputation is growing (she's been nominated for a Lambda Literary Award and several others) and Grail can only help her career.  I can't wait to see what she comes up with next.


  1. "sentient, mobile orchids who are obsessed with watching 20th century television"

    Oooooo. I am so gonna get this book.

  2. I highly recommend starting with Dust. The crazy flowers show up in Chill, the second book. A trilogy may seem daunting, but Bear is an easy read. It's a bit like watching a few episodes of Star Trek (TNG, of course)--fascinating ideas in an entertaining package.

    I need to review some of the headier stuff I've been reading as well!