All The Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear – Audiobook Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk takes a look at the first novel of the Edda of Burdens series, one of Elizabeth Bear’s earliest novels. This is the twelfth in his Advent Review series and you can check out a full listing here.
“A story epic in scope with an uneasy marriage of technology and magic, All The Windwracked Stars is a novel with some fantastic world-building and some really intriguing characters.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
Like Raymond E. Feist’s A Kingdom Besieged, Elizabeth Bear’s All the Windwracked Stars too is part of my “25 Series In 2013” challenge. Elizabeth is an author I’d been meaning to try for quite a while, and this book was my chosen path to getting to know her writing and experiencing what she could do. A lot of my blogger friends talk highly of her and after just having finished the audiobook version of the novel, I have to say that I am quite impressed by it. Inspired by Norse mythology and the legends of Ragnarok, she goes off in a very unexpected direction and she certainly has a lot of fun in how she spins her own unique take on these myths. She goes small, in a story where there are no gods, no giants, no elves, but she still tells the story of the end of the world through the eyes of a Valkyrie, the Shieldmaidens of myth who escorted Norse heroes to… well, heaven.
Muire is the central character of the novel and it is her that we see in the first and the final scenes. The novel is all about her journey as she survives Ragnarok alongwith her iron steed Kasimir, a Valraven. Skipping the gap of centuries, Elizabeth brings the character into the here and now, to a time when the survival of these two has led to the survival of the world itself, and now there is only one last bastion of humanity left, one last city that must now live through another Ragnarok, if at all.
The best part of the novel is the world-building. The blend of technology and magic in this setting is quite subtle at times and can even lead you astray in one direction or another. Sure, it doesn’t help that the author is quite vague about it in the story, but that’s the charm of the whole thing really. It is an aspect that I enjoyed, whether we talk about the Un-Mans who are a mix of man and animal, or Muire’s abilities as a functionally immortal Valkyrie or Kasimir himself, or the fact that the last city on Valdyrgard is ruled by someone referred to often as the Technomancer. Whether you prefer magic or technology, the novel has something for everybody and the fun is in working out where along the spectrum everything lies.
All the characters, whether we talk about Muire and Kasimir, or the others such as Cathoair (a teenage boxing champion) and Selene (an Un-Man who s part-cat) or the Technomancer herself, are all charming in their own little ways. Some of the character relationships, such as that between Muire and Cathoair or Muire and the Technomancer, Thierry, come off as too sudden or spontaneous at times, but Elizabeth easily gets over that hurdle by writing the fallout of these relationships quite well. Each character is played off the other to further the story and throughout, Elizabeth continues in one unexpected direction after another.
Muire and her adversary, Mingan the Gray Wolf, are some of the most conflicted characters that I’ve read about. Muire carries the guilt of her cowardice from the Ragnarok she survived while Mingan carries the guilt of who he is, a tarnished Child of Light like Muire, but one who essentially fell from grace. The interplay between these two characters is a highlight of the novel, much as the final scene with Muire and Thierry is.
This is the first time that I have listened to an audiobook (audioBOOK and not audioDRAMA) where I hadn’t already read the novel, or wasn’t familiar with the setting, no matter how peripherally, such as was the case last year with the Judge Dredd audios from Big Finish last year. It was an interesting experience for sure. My unfamiliarity worked against me a lot of the times, almost making me lean towards not doing this again since I enjoy following along with every second of an audiobook (for the good ones of course) and that’s not what happened with this one. Some of the words and their pronunciations seemed odd to me, and sometimes the pacing got off on the wrong track so the story got boring. Consequently, the audio experience itself was boring.
It took a lot of time for me to work my way through the audiobook because of this, and it didn’t help that I was always short on time for an audiobook these past few months. And beginning each day of listening to the audiobook by going over the previous track, just so that I could refresh my memory of where I had left off with the story was also not pleasant. I guess listening to audiobooks without having read the source material or being in some way familiar with it is just not my thing.
Still, on the whole, this was a fun story with some great characters and a nicely developed setting and some really cool action scenes, so the novel definitely has a thumbs-up from me.