The White City is the first book by Elizabeth Bear that I’ve read. This novella is a Subterranean Press limited edition. The book is printed on silky low-acid paper with a rich cover that looks like a woodcut. The book is lovely.
The White City is Moscow at the turn of the 20th century in a world different from ours. The British Colonies in the Americas are only beginning to fight for their independence, and wampyr (vampires) share city streets with humans, most of them developing a “court” of humans from whom they feed. It’s all very civilized and decadent.
Sebastien de Ulloa is not only a wampyr but a consulting detective, and with his court, Mrs. Phoebe Smith, a novelist, and Abigail Irene Garrett, forensic wizard, he investigates the murder of another wampyr’s “courtesan.” The crime stirs up memories of a similar murder in Moscow, six years earlier, that involved many of the same people.
Abby Irene is a trained wizard who uses magic to investigate crimes. In Russia, this use of magic is banned (because of an historic uprising by the magical community, put down by a sorceress Tsarina) but the Russians have developed mundane forensic investigation to the level of recognizing fingerprints and understanding the importance of hairs and fibers. The sequence where Abby conducts a magical autopsy side-by-side with the Russian detective is intriguing.
Starkad, the wampyr whose former courtesan was killed, surrounds himself with artists and with art, because art lasts longer than human life. Starkad’s connections to his human court are emotionally cool. This is a contrast to Sebastien, who chooses to connect with humans and laments their short lifespan. Later in the book, Sebastien lashes out at the stupidity of revolutionary ardor because nothing changes and people just die, and a human character responds, “They get better for now.” It is the difference between the human view and what Sebastien calls the long view.
The White City has short chapters moving between 1897 and 1903. The mystery is not complex, but Bear plays fair with her readers and gives us the clues we need. The prose is sparse and she devotes her word count mostly to descriptions, particularly descriptions of interiors, capturing the feeling of Moscow life through depictions of cafes, artists’ flats, police stations and hotel suites. Even in a short work, Bear delivers a convincing alternate world through the use of the right detail rather than a lot of exposition.
This book does work as a stand-alone, but my ignorance of the relationships left me confused. For example, I was halfway through this 190-page book before I knew that Abigail Irene’s last name wasn’t Irene, and I was baffled by the final chapter, where Starkad spouts off a laundry list of names to Sebastien. Clearly the names have meaning for Sebastien even though they meant nothing to me. I am sure that when I read the earlier stories, these names will fall into place. These are pretty standard problems for a reader who comes into the middle of a series.
Other reviewers have commented on problems with proofreading in Subterranean Press books, and I was disappointed to find two major ones in this book. At the start of one chapter, a possessive pronoun is left out of a sentence. This broke my concentration but I was able to get back into the story quickly. A few pages later, the confusion of the words “where” and “were” meant that I had to re-read the sentence twice to understand what was going on. It is pretty common to find typographical errors in books these days, but Subterranean Press is selling a quality, high-end product. They publish great writers, reproduce works that need to be in print, and create a beautiful object in each book. It seems to me that they could bump up quality control in this one area.
Bear has created an interesting world, and Sebastien is a complex, compelling creature. Abby Irene and Phoebe are well developed characters, strong capable women who have chosen to enter into this strange relationship. I will be on the lookout for other of Bear’s work.