Elizabeth Bear's Dust is the first book in a planned series called "Jacob's Ladder." A surprising aspect of this novel iasn't in its premise but rather the tools which Bear uses to flesh out her world, imbuing the story with elements most often seen in epic fantasy novels - ruling classes, bloodlines, knights and chivalry, and really, really big swords with names and capable of causing wounds that never heal. The war and conflicting politics between the House of Rule and Engine combined with a knight from Engine, Perceval, who has lost her wings to Ariane of the House of Rule, flavor the story with enough fantasy to make the entire book contrived, derivative and old before the reader has begun. However, the fantastical pieces of Dust fit seamlessly into Bear's science fiction setting, a world revealed slowly in bits and pieces along a quest that spans ages and Heavens.
Rien, a serving girl in the House of Rule, sees Perceval brought to her home as Ariane's prisoner, her wings slashed after surrendering, and Rein becomes her caretaker. Revelations between Perceval and Rien take them both out of the House of Rule into the spaceship and space beyond, setting off on a quest for Engine and safe harbor as omnipresent entities seek to control or sabotage Perceval for their own ends.
The story is compelling, with Bear's tangle of fantasy and science fiction tropes producing a beautiful, complicated knot. Her characters are well-crafted, but as a whole, the book itself - including its characters - might leave someone new to science fiction cold. The beginning of the story, as Perceval and Rien travel, meet allies and gain new skills, is lovely and well-done. Rien grows beautifully as she is changed from a common Mean to an Exalt. Perceval is fabulous as she deals with Pinion, a pair of sentient wings that grew from her bonds during captivity, created by one of the entities, named Jacob. The romance between Perceval and Rien is intriguing and subtle, as well as their interactions with other people, helping to show them in different lights. However, the second half suffers from too many characters whose opposing motives and politics make it hard to connect to any of them any longer.
The writing remains excellent, however, and the farther into the story the reader progresses, the more things make more sense. It's probably a hard book for a science fiction beginner to read through; the first 50 pages may present a trial to those not used to authors throwing them out to swim and infer on their own. Still, even that aspect and the distance between reader and characters in the second half don't detract from an interesting story cobbled together from overused and abused SF/F ideas to create a fascinating world. The end of the novel is a complete shift from the beginning, a treat to those who can stick with it.
The cover art is the biggest detractor; it fails to do the book justice at all, relating only in the weakest way to themes and situations. It doesn't do the story justice, as the content of the book is incredible. Dust is followed by Chill, the next book in the series, to be released in 2009.