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Bewildering Stories

Elizabeth Bear, New Amsterdam

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

New Amsterdam
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Subterranean Press, 2007
Length: 267 pages
ISBN: 978-1-59606-163-7
If you go to a sci-fi con, among the left-over Renaissance Faire costumes and the Goths, you’ll see the more stylish devotees of steam punk. The women may wear one of those lovely white Victorian blouses and ladylike leather boots. I’ve seen fewer male fans of the style, and so far, thank heaven, no handlebar mustaches. But handlebar mustaches and sideburns may affront my eyes in the future. Steam punk’s up and coming.

OK, exactly what is steam punk? A riff on Victorian, obviously. This was the era when the future arrived. Electricity and the whole concept of the machine; mad scientists and Captain Nemo. The Mysterious Island and invaders from Mars. Scientific boundaries expanding without visible limit. An era when men could believe in death rays and trips to the Moon. True, the atomic bomb hadn’t yet appeared to truly scare the pants off them. So it was an era of optimism unless you were Tiny Tim.

When a book starts out with a zeppelin (hydrogen fueled, no less) and vampires, we know we’re in an alternate 19th century. Elizabeth Bear’s New Amsterdam is a collection of short stories featuring the Great Detective (presumptuously usurping Sherlock’s title), Don Sebastian de Ulloa, and his partner, Lady Abigail Irene Garrett.

Don Sebastian is the vampire, a somewhat frail and gentle Chelsea Quinn Yarbo style blood sucker who does not kill his victims. Lady Abigail is the Crown sorceress and detective who has an un-Victorian penchant for love affairs. Power’s the aphrodisiac: she doesn’t go for the hunky janitors. Princes, Dukes and vampires are more her thing.

Besides the usual sorceries, possessions, and gruesome murders investigated by Lady Abigail and her considerate lover Sebastian, we have a backdrop of American colonies struggling to be free of the arrogant British. Lady Abigail’s not a believer until she’s shafted by her ruthless lover the Duke (the assignations could get difficult to juggle. And wow! She’s fifty. I admire this woman). Lady Abigail used to appreciate the Duke for that very quality of tough, but of course the aphrodisiac of power is never so pretty when one’s own head is lined up in the sights. Bye-bye, “God Save the King.” Hell hath no fury, as they say, though in this case, old-fashioned British honour’s at stake.

So Lady Abigail, Don Sebastian, and the members of Sebastian’s vampire “court” — pretty blonde Jack and Phoebe the Boston authoress — do a Benjamin Franklin and travel to Paris to win help for the patriots. Of course, to do that, they have a supernatural mystery to solve. Nothing’s free in life, even in Paris.

I’m still looking for a steam punk book that gives the genre the boost into the stratosphere it needs. New Amsterdam is enjoyable but won’t do the trick. The episodic approach of the book and the switching viewpoints make it easy to read but also easy to put down.

Still, the genre begins to fascinate me. I’ve got an idea for my own next book... how does mad rampaging steam trains sound? Oh. OK... I’m still working on it.

Copyright © 2009 by Danielle L. Parker

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