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Scardown by Elizabeth Bear

01/08/2005. Contributed by Tomas L. Martin

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pub: Bantam Spectra. 368 page paperback. Price: $ 6.99 (US), $10.99 (CAN). ISBN: 0-553-58751-X.

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Elizabeth Bear's first novel, 'Hammered', was a very impressive cyberpunk story of an Earth dying of global warming and fractured by war. Jenny Casey, a war veteran pieced back together by an unorthodox new technique, was brought out of hiding when the authorities she was on the run from decided they needed her. As the only fully functioning survivor of the project, her augmented senses and reflexes were needed for a new mission, piloting a ship through the stars.

When I reviewed it six months ago, I really enjoyed its high-pace, fast-talking style and its myriad of great characters, especially the Artificial Intelligence reconstruction of legendary physicist and practical joker Richard Feynman, an inspired choice to have as a model for the first superhuman character. 'Hammered' finished with Jenny Casey being reconciled with the Canadian authorities chasing her, partially so she and the Feynman AI could go on board the starship Canada has finished building.

'Scardown' continues where the previous book left off, as Jenny learns to pilot the ship and starts to train similarly augmented youngsters so that they too can pilot to the stars. Feynman, rapidly expanding through the ship and its augmented pilots, discovers a sabotage plot and a Chinese vessel is ready to launch, challenging the Canadians for their goal of a new planet for humanity to inhabit, as the environment of Earth breaks down.

Meanwhile, the ex-gangster Razorface is busy tracking down the traitorous head of the space agency and uncovering an assassination plot on the president. Jenny's lover Gabe has a daughter who is recruited into the space program and Chinese pilot Min-Xue rebels against his government by beginning to talk to the AI Feynman.

As you may have noticed, there are a lot of plotlines in 'Scardown'. Too many, in my opinion. Bear uses an incredible number of different point of views over the course of the novel. I counted at least fifteen different characters used as viewpoint characters, all of them with a different storyline going on, although most crossed in some way or another.

While all of these characters are interesting and many of them important to the main story, using so many of them as viewpoint characters really disorientated me, as every chapter break I'd have to check who's head I was in, work out what they were doing and where they were. Some of the smaller sub-plots didn't seem worth inclusion and distracted from the main plot so that when the major plot twists came along, they were too unexpected, hidden beneath a load of smaller twists not really that important.

There were elements of 'Scardown' I really enjoyed. Feynman is always entertaining and when the viewpoint is in Jenny's point of view, the style is wonderful. The first book succeeded really well because most of it was in her POV and only occasionally did Bear stray into others. This meant that there was a strong central narrative but also interesting subplots. Here, Jenny Casey isn't the major character anymore. She has more scenes than any other individual character, but the majority of scenes are in someone else's POV. That means that exciting, stylistic central narrative often feels disjointed.

I think 'Scardown tries to fit too much story into its 400-odd pages, which would have been better spread across two books. It's still enjoyable and I still await the next volume in the series with hope but Elizabeth Bear's second novel shows a few flaws that let the continuity go too much to read as well as her debut.

Tomas L. Martin

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