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REVIEW: Ad Eternum by Elizabeth Bear

REVIEW SUMMARY: An accidental dip into the New Amsterdam series that turned into a pleasant discovery.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A wampyr returns to an alternate history New York in 1962 and must decide his own future.

PROS: Excellent world building; sympathetic protagonist and interesting characters; the pensive mood; the stylish writing; although this was a welcome introduction into the series…
CONS: …allusions to earlier stories probably means this isn’t the best place to start.
BOTTOM LINE: Even not having read any of the other books in this series, I can tell that Ad Eternum is a story that gives its protagonist some much-needed closure.

If I’m going to start a new book series, my OCD dictates that I start at the beginning. There exists an irrational fear that doing otherwise will reveal spoilers for the earlier stories, thereby destroying the experience of reading those stories. This is, of course, a silly notion. Even if I could remember any spoiled events by the time I got around to reading them, books are enjoyable in a number of ways aside from the specifics of plot. Still, the only way I will start a series in the middle or end is accidentally.

And so it was that I picked up Elizabeth Bear’s novella Ad Eternum. I realized after I had already started reading it that the numerous allusions to the protagonist’s history probably meant I was late to the party. Sure enough, I learned that it’s the latest (final?) story in her New Amsterdam alternate history series where vampires (here called wampyrs) and magic coexist. By all rights, my OCD should have compelled me to stop reading it. But it was too late; I was already hooked.

In Ad Eternum, the protagonist is a wampyr who currently calls himself Jack Prior. (Being effectively immortal, he has assumed many identities over the centuries of his cursed existence.) After a decades-long absence, he has returned to New Amsterdam in North America — this is an alternate 1962 history New York that has yet to rebel against British rule. He is weary; tired of having to start his life over yet again. But now he is finally confronted with new possibilities…

So what, exactly, was the hook that kept me reading? The compelling components of Ad Eternum are many:

  • The world building is intriguing. In this alternate 1960s New York, the colonies are still under British rule, although they are on the cusp of rebellion. While that may be a bit different than the history we know, one key component remains the same: the issue of race relations. The intriguing bit here is that racial tension is between humans vs. wampyrs. In this world, members of “the Blood” are not mythical; they live among us. The tension is evoked not only from the scenes of protest regarding John Prior’s arrival in the colonies (a publicized event because he’s one of the oldest of the Blood), but also by things that go unspoken.
  • The mood of book is pensive and restless. Despite the racial tension, the goings-on are very civil…a situation that lends to palpable atmosphere.
  • The characters are interesting. Prior himself, being a wampyr, craves blood. However, being the civilized gentleman he his, doesn’t “overstay his welcome” when a “victim” willingly offers himself…a scene that hints at an interesting relationship. Indeed, Prior is a fairly complex person. Seemingly at the end of his days, more out of ennui than anything else, he is reflective of his life and past relationships. Some of those threads that began in the earlier stories (I learned later) are picked up here, a certain thrill for folks who are returning to the series.
  • Being an alternate history story, it extends its reach into the real world. Smartphone at hand, I found myself googling some of the historical figures that were named in the story. As you might guess, whether or not you’re familiar with the series, some of the characters have notably appeared in our own history. Such references enhance the enjoyment derived from a story for those willing to take the time to read about the historical figures as the author has undoubtedly done.
  • The writing is top notch: stylish without being hard to consume, descriptive without being padded, and conducive to engrossing the reader into this world.

My only misgivings about the book admittedly come from my own trajectory into the series. Since Ad Eternum picks up the wampyr’s story after all the events that preceded it, there was a feeling that this was tying together several loose ends more than it was concerned with a standalone plot. Additionally, several mentions were made to past events that, while not detractions from the story, did make me feel like I was missing out, although perhaps that’s not such a bad thing after all…based on this read of Ad Eternum, I think the New Amsterdam series is worth checking out.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

3 Comments on REVIEW: Ad Eternum by Elizabeth Bear

  1. From what I understand, starting here with Jack and his world is definitely not recommended. Bear does like to build edifices of character and worldbuilding, and going in medias res means that you lose something in translation…

  2. ohthatashley // May 8, 2012 at 4:11 pm //

    the New Amsterdam series is, i think, what got me started with Elizabeth Bear’s writing. fantastic stuff. now i’m left wondering if i ordered this or not. oY!

  3. Looking forward to reading this one, as I very much enjoyed the earlier New Amsterdam entries. John, if you do go back and read the earlier ones, you’re in for a treat.

    And I love these covers. This fits nicely with the earlier ones, despite being evocative of a different time.

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