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REVIEW: Dancing With Bears by Michael Swanwick

REVIEW SUMMARY: A rollicking, weird ride through a vibrant, post-apocalyptic world.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Darger and Surplus are con-men following rumors of a secret library. Their plans hit a few snags, and they end up caught in a vast conspiracy of mad straniks, Russian aristocrazy and human-hating android relics.

PROS: The writing is brilliant; the text has a distinctly Russian flavor, without being colloquial; the setting is one-of-a-kind; tropes are skewered left and right.
CONS: It is intense and decidedly weird; if you like traditional SF, this book is not for you; an erotic scene between a genetically-modified dogman and an engineered human that provokes…some uncertainty.
BOTTOM LINE: This is a love-it-or-hate-it book, the literary equivalent of Turkish coffee: intense, rich and complex.

Dancing With Bears is…hard to describe.

Darger and Surplus are gentleman con men. Working only at the highest levels of society for the biggest prizes, they are the best, and their exploits are legendary. For their latest con, they’ve infiltrated the Byzantinian court and gotten themselves assigned as aides to the ambassador to Russia. Their target is nothing less than the greatest library in the world, a library that has been lost for many decades.

But that’s the simple part of the book. The party is attacked by a cyber-wolf in the wastes, leaving the ambassador dead and Darger and Surplus in charge of the Pearls, women genetically engineered to be the epitome of beauty and accomplishment, and their Neanderthal bodyguards. The Pearls are meant for the Duke of Muscovy to cement relations between When they arrive in Moscow, however, their plans immediately begin to fray, and they find themselves drawn into the biggest, most desperate adventure of their lives. Mankind isn’t the only thing out there, and the machines are hungry for destruction. There is also the stranniks, madmen bearing a drug that opens the user’s mind to godhood and reduces them to the mindless need for pleasure.

Any summary of Dancing With Bears will be unfortunately bare of what makes this book so enjoyable. Revenant Lenin, giant sleeping men with omnipotent minds, cyberwolves, humans mutated in all directions, dogs genetically engineered to human size and function, mad stranniks, holy drugs, love-stricken boys, lost cities, robots and fabulous riches…Dancing With Bears has everything. At times, the story itself gets a little lost in the sensory overload, but it never becomes boring.

I’ve always enjoyed Swanwick’s prose, and it is up to its usual standards here. There is a particular cadence to be found in works translated from Russian, and Swanwick somehow manages to capture that lyrical quality here.

If this book has a weak point, it is in the larger-than-life characters. Zoesophia, the governess of the Pearls, is a cool, manipulative, calculating woman who ruthlessly climbs her way to power. Koschei is a mad priest with designs on world domination. Chortenko is a ruthless, cruel political mastermind. Hardly unique templates, and often of exaggerated personalities, they do at least very much fit their larger-than-life setting.

This is a love-it-or-hate-it book, the literary equivalent of Turkish coffee: intense, rich and complex. My personal response to this book is unmitigated glee, because it is just so fun, and too little SF is fun. Approach with care, and allow plenty of time to read straight through.

4 Comments on REVIEW: Dancing With Bears by Michael Swanwick

  1. Thanks, Jaym.

    I seem to recall we were discussing this book recently in and around a recent SF Signal podcast.

    And uncertain erotica is a hallmark part of Swanwick stories and novels. Par for the course!

  2. TheAdlerian // May 9, 2012 at 8:44 pm //

    Thanks for the review, I’m looking into getting the book!

    I’ve never read anything by him and it’s always interesting to find someone new. Plus, I’m intrigued by the “race” of the one character. Can’t wait to see how that’s handled.

    Question: What other books do these characters appear?

    I’ve found The Dog Said Bow Wow, which contains one story, correct?

    Anything else?


  3. TheAdlerian // May 10, 2012 at 12:06 am //


    I just downloaded the sample for my Kindle and it’s an addictive read, so I got the book. Looks like an interesting world.

    Normally, I don’t like when an author makes the future “the past” because I see it as lazy writing and a fantasy novel disguised as SF, but this is different. The characters know about the past and there’s a cultural mix going on which keeps it SF. The writing is good kept me wanting more, so no complaints.

    Also, John, thanks for the link.

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