While Dust is categorized as science fiction, there were actually a lot of familiar fantasy elements in the book, which I found a little bit surprising but quite enjoyable. For example, a number of medieval concepts are employed in the novel, such as a ruling family of nobles; politics regarding bloodlines, successors and inheritances; knights; castles; swords as the preferred choice of weaponry; chivalry; and so on. Then there’s the story, which features a servant girl who discovers she’s someone important, a couple of quests including one to prevent a war between the House of Rule and Engine, and the presence of near-omniscient angels who play the role of “meddling gods.” On top of that you also have the Garden of Eden and other Christian references, prophecy told through a deck of cards, the appearance of a dragon, a basilisk side character and a necromancer…
If Dust had been a straight-up fantasy novel, it would be hard to ignore all of the tropes that Ms. Bear uses, but because of the sci-fi setting, they actually complement the story. And that’s where things get interesting. For starters, the “world” that the book is set in is actually a gigantic generation colony ship called Jacob’s Ladder, which, over the centuries, has forced evolution on its occupants through nanotechnology colonies and symbionts, resulting in the angelic-like Exalts. Overseeing this world are “angels,” who are actually fragments of one large entity called Israfel. The problem is that the star system Jacob’s Ladder has been orbiting is on the verge of going supernova and to have any chance of survival, the ship must be moved to a new location. In order for that to happen however, the ship has to be repaired first and all of the Israfel fragments united as one. That means war between the different remnants — namely, Jacob Dust the Angel of Memory, Samael the Angel of Biosystems and Asrafil the Angel of Blades — each of whom have their own selfish objectives. Tangled up in the middle of this conflict is the Exalt Percival Conn, the key to success for whichever angel comes out on top, but it’ll actually be Rien the servant girl and her companions who determine the fate of Jacob’s Ladder.
Besides the fun story that mixes traditional fantasy with space opera adventure, Dust also features interesting characters. I liked Rien the most because she changes the most throughout the novel being Remade from a common Mean into an Exalt, consuming the memories of a Chief Engineer, and discovering a family she never knew she had. Of the other two main characters, I thought Jacob had the most entertaining scenes especially his interactions with the other Angels, and I enjoyed the struggle that Percival faced with Pinion, a set of sentient wings that act as her ‘guard and warden.’ A lot of the supporting cast, including Lady Ariane, Benedick Conn, and Tristen Conn, were pretty generic and undeveloped, but I was fond of Mallory and the basilisk Gavin. Additionally, there were some interesting SF concepts in the book, such as the symbiosis between the nanotechnology colonies and their hosts; the deadly unblades that create unhealable wounds; the way Angels and Exalts can “consume” others to gain memories and knowledge; and the whole idea of a ship existing as a world complete with different cities and societies.
As far as the writing, there’s not much to criticize. Dust is deftly paced and plotted; the main characters are well-constructed; action scenes are dutifully exciting; and the prose is descriptive, elegant and accessible. Furthermore, Ms. Bear is pretty open when it comes to sexuality. Dust includes a Kant (an ungendered character referred to as sie or hir), a hermaphrodite, and relationships that would be considered taboo in our society. In fact, the only thing that I can really complain about is the cover art, which doesn’t do the book justice, but I don’t believe Bear had anything to do with that!
Dust is the opening volume in the Jacob’s Ladder trilogy. I know that some readers don’t like to start a series until it’s been completed, but I think this could be an exception. While the story stops at a climactic point, Bear resolves a lot of the novel’s subplots and I have a feeling that Chill is going to have a much different vibe. I can’t wait to see what happens with it.