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The White City by Elizabeth Bear

The use of language is full of odd experiences. You can be going with the flow one minute and then, much as the stately river makes progress through pleasant fields, you can suddenly come to a rock that disturbs forward motion, diverting the water for a brief moment until it regroups on the other side to resume its journey to the distant sea. But in that moment, calm is lost. So it is with this short novel. You can be wandering through some good prose, not untypical of the period being described, and then you suddenly run across an Americanism. You discover a city like Moscow is homey or a lack of Chinamen is egregious. This is not to say there’s anything inherently wrong with such vocabulary choices. They just jar the sensibilities of an old foreigner like me. I’m all for consistency. If an author is writing an American book, let it be as it should be wrote by an American. But begin a story set in a foreign country involving characters who are not American. Ah, now the rules of the game should change. Instead of an all-American text, we should be aiming for an all-European — although I will concede the editorial decision to continue American spelling and the vagaries of local grammar.

In The White City (Subterranean Press, 2010) Elizabeth Bear offers us the third episode in the ongoing New Amsterdam series describing the existence of Sebastien de Ulloa, a one-time apprenticed stonemason who involuntarily joined the ranks of the undead. In 1903, he and two female companions are returning to Moscow. Sebastien has a history from 1897 when he and Jack Priest knew a certain Irina Stephanova Belotserkovskaya, an artist and member of the vampire underworld.

What makes this alternate history interesting is society’s acceptance of vampirism. A police force knows and understands the strengths and weaknesses of these creatures, using that information to exclude them as suspects from a murder. Well perhaps there has been more than one murder. And it may be these killings are connected. But what, or perhaps more to the point, who is the connection? Well that’s what blends a detective with a vampire story as different sets of forensic skills come into play, overlapping more modern ideas of fingerprints and trace evidence with thaumaturgical impressions visible to a sorcerer with the right skills.

Taking an overview, The White City is actually a gentle variation on the theme of loneliness. I suppose, if we view this as a question of existentialism, we could start with the proposition we are all alone. Without telepathy, we can only approximate an understanding of what others feel. No one can really know what it feels like to be you (or me). So we do our best to share, to explain ourselves, to somehow bridge the gap between each other. Some find this isolation depressing. They curse their lot. Others are better adjusted or merely hide their unhappiness more convincingly.

Elizabeth Bear with holy water to hand in case of emergencies

Perhaps it’s inherent in the male view of the world that, separated by biology from the act of bringing new life into the world, we are more disinterested, less engaged in relationships. Whether by nature or nurture, women seem more committed to the reality of families. Their roles have traditionally been as carers, for the new lives and the old, for the current men who are supposed to protect them from the cruelties of the world. Yet, when you get past the biology, everyone needs other people to some degree. It’s all a question of the terms on which this need is to be expressed and satisfied.

Do we all want to be loved? Perhaps we do even though it may only be an emotional crutch to get us through the years. Is it always a case that those with the power over others can love and leave? Perhaps there’s a kind of paradox here. That we all have a need for other people, for relationships to help keep the loneliness at bay. Yet we always know in our hearts this is a need that can never really be satisfied.

A vampire who has lived a century has known and lost countless lovers, friends and mere acquaintances. The only emotional defence is to step outside time. To live in the moment, not making commitments that cannot be kept. Yet suppose one old vampire meets another who is countless years older. That might pierce the protective bubble the youngster has built around himself. Perhaps that might bring re-engagement with the world. It could help the younger see the importance in relationships even though, to him, they were fleeting.

The White City is a story tinged by sadness. It’s all to do with the joy of acceptance and the pain of rejection. It’s all about the heat of passion and the anger that drives revenge. It’s well worth seeking out and reading.

Jacket artwork by Patrick Arrasmith.

The preceding book in this series is Seven for a Secret and the next is ad eternum. The books in a new trilogy are:
Range of Ghosts
Shattered Pillars
Steles of the Sky with
Book of Iron an associated novella.
There’s an excellent collection Shoggoths in Bloom. For a review of the two books jointly written with Sarah Monette, see A Companion to Wolves and The Tempering of Men.

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  1. June 13, 2014 at 2:54 am

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