Broken AIs and Engineered Angels: A Review of Dust

Dust (2007)
Written By: Elizabeth Bear
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 368 (Mass Market Paperback)
Series: Jacob’s Ladder Book 1
Publisher: Spectra

Why I Chose It: I was intrigued with the melding of angels and religion with space travel and nanotechnology. Also, I’ve never read anything by Elizabeth Bear and I keep meaning to.


On a broken ship orbiting a doomed sun, dwellers have grown complacent with their aging metal world. But when a serving girl frees a captive noblewoman, the old order is about to change….

Ariane, Princess of the House of Rule, was known to be fiercely cold-blooded. But severing an angel’s wings on the battlefield — even after she had surrendered — proved her completely without honor. Captive, the angel Perceval waits for Ariane not only to finish her off — but to devour her very memories and mind. Surely her gruesome death will cause war between the houses — exactly as Ariane desires. But Ariane’s plan may yet be opposed, for Perceval at once recognizes the young servant charged with her care.

Rien is the lost child: her sister. Soon they will escape, hoping to stop the impending war and save both their houses. But it is a perilous journey through the crumbling hulk of a dying ship, and they do not pass unnoticed. Because at the hub of their turning world waits Jacob Dust, all that remains of God, following the vapor wisp of the angel. And he knows they will meet very soon.

No Spoilers!

Discussion: First off is a warning, this book has a fairly steep learning curve right off the bat. Dust demonstrates the immersive approach to worldbuilding by simply throwing you into the deep end and expecting you to sink or swim. I decided pretty early on to just let the unfamiliar names and politics roll over me since trying to keep up without a better understanding was futile. It had been a while since I’d read the back cover copy so it took me way too long to even realize they were on a space ship. But I promise, if you stick with it, the world is fascinating, and it really doesn’t take that long to become invested in it.

I really loved how you couldn’t tell from moment to moment whether you were reading fantasy or science fiction. That kind of genre blending is really unique and became the center of my interest in this book. I mean, I loved the characters and the power of their relationships, but I cared less about what they were doing than I did about where they were and how they interacted with their environment, which incorporated both fantastical tropes and cool technology. And Dust was comfortable in its ambiguity. It was without a doubt science fiction, but it didn’t feel the need to explain everything with lengthy lectures on real life physics or robotics. Bear built the world so deftly that I found myself accepting a necromancer who kept dead memories in fruit as readily as I accepted nanotechnology making characters superhuman. It was all part of the world.

Bear also had no problem with shades of gray, exploring the tricky lines between things like love and sexuality, religion and technology, and trusting out of love and trusting out of necessity. Love and sexuality have been tangled for a while, but Bear handled the subject with grace and understanding, emphasizing the idea that love is a choice as well as a feeling or an attraction. It’s an idea that I feel is sometimes lost in the “I want what I want and that’s the way it’s going to be” argument so popular right now. I like that Bear made the distinction that yes, you can want (or not want as the case may be), but you can also choose. And that choice is powerful.

Even more blurred lines existed with the fragmented AI that thinks of itself as a God or an angel. In a lot of ways that belief should have been an example of Jacob Dust’s brokenness, but the more I read, the more I thought, “you know, he’s not exactly wrong.” Because on a ship that serves as an entire world for its people, of course an AI that could run the place would seem like a God. Even if its people have enough self-awareness to see the boundaries between the supernatural and the technological.

I’ll admit I was a little slow on the uptake figuring out who the “bad guy” was. Once I got a clue, I was ready to count it as a fault in the story that I couldn’t tell sooner. I like knowing who to trust and who to eye dubiously, but in this case, I’m revising my thought process. It was okay that everyone had their own agenda and few of them lined up, because Rien and Perceval’s relationship and their absolute trust in each other served as an anchor for everything else. I knew where they stood with each other so it was all right when expectations and hopes shifted around the two of them like sand through fingers.

In conclusion: There were times when I felt like this book was getting too smart for me, subtleties and assumptions slid by me and left me thinking “wait, what just happened?” But in the end the important stuff came through loud and clear in a surprisingly satisfying ending. The world and its denizens have been through the fire, they’ve changed and grown, and now I can’t wait to see how those changes carry them through to their end. On to Chill, the second book in the Jacob’s Ladder trilogy.


  • Weasel of Doom January 25, 2018 at 5:03 pm

    I tried reading it a while back, but gave up. One of these days, I should try again…

  • Shara White January 25, 2018 at 9:25 pm

    I’ve read this whole trilogy, and it’s not an easy read, though it is a rewarding one. It’s a trilogy I’d love to re-read one day, now that I’ve got the initial read under my belt. Here’s my original review from 2011 (and from January, no less!):


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