All the Windwracked Stars
Elizabeth Bear
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Buy *All the Windwracked Stars* by Elizabeth Bear

All the Windwracked Stars
Elizabeth Bear
368 pages
September 2008
rated 2 of 5 possible stars

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It’s always a shame when books are undone by their own ambition, especially when that ambition is as aimless as in All the Windwracked Stars. Bear starts with a funky, almost absurd premise that grabs hold of the reader in that I really need to see how this plays out sort of way: after the end of the world, a valkyrie who escaped the desolation is condemned to live her immortal life in shame having fled from battle. She watches the construction of a new civilization that freely combines technology and magic but as an outsider, a Dorian Gray of sorts, is unable and unwilling to participate in the new world.

This would be interesting (and a whole lot of fun) if I could get over some of the abominable clichés and faux-Tolkien speak. If you’re more practiced in and tolerant of prose like this -

“When you killed Rannveig,” she says. “When we were angels, and we loved. And you should have taken the knife in your hand, and bled out your life.”
- then you have a stronger stomach than mine and you may find this book enjoyable. In which case, I’ll save you some time and give you the short of it for you to make up your own mind: Bear isn’t wanting for interesting ideas and world-building, but her style of storytelling and deficit of original deeper meaning make this a very difficult read.

I’m not sure what to make of a protagonist who freely utters thee and thou like a Chaucer creation in one chapter and is completely modern the next. Nor do I understand why, just because we’re reading fantasy, it’s okay to spew bad—okay, let’s be honest—painful poetry like the dialogue clip above. Reading becomes tedious by the second sentence of the first chapter: “Broken wings dragged from his shoulders like defeated banners, disordered feathers hauling crimson streaks through the snow that would not stop falling.” Bear seems so intent on cramming as much flourish and intensity into every line that she completely ignores the virtues of letting economy and clarity speak for themselves. As a result, the writing feels washed-out, devoid of meaning. Talk about being the daughter of “the Light” and how “the Light” is gone in the world gets old fast; what is supposed to be epic winds up almost childish.

Such faulty devices might be acceptable were Bear transforming the urban fantasy genre into something new, as some have claimed. But I don’t see it. At its core, despite its overwrought moments of internal reflection, All the Windwracked Stars is a plot-driven novel populated by poorly drawn characters and a story that’s hard to follow. It lacks the novelty and insight that would make its writing quality forgivable. And the plot isn’t even easy to follow; it gets lost in the melodrama so much that I had to reread several passages to still have no clear idea of what had happened. The transition from the “Desolation” to the dawn of the new world is particularly vague: how it happened, who led it, and what it consists of are questions never adequately addressed. While we don’t need answers brought to us on a silver platter, Bear would have done her world-building well by giving us a clue as to what was going on. Without even these bare essentials, what are we supposed to get from this novel?

All the Windwracked Stars demands a lot of patience from its readers. Unfortunately, it never delivers enough to make the effort worth it.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Max Falkowitz, 2009

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