Set in an alternate 19th/early 20th Century where the British Empire still reigns supreme and magic and science collide Elizabeth Bear’s New Amsterdam is an fascinating look in a world equal parts familiar and strange.
Warning: Vampire Romance Ahead. Words I almost wish I had heard before starting the book, but ultimately I’m glad I didn’t as I would have missed out on a good read. The book’s main characters are DCI (Detective Crown Inspector) Abigail Irene Garrett and Don Sebastian de Ulloa (the aforementioned vampire) the more interesting of the two, IMO, is DCI Garrett but the book focuses heavily on Sebastian. Garrett is a hard drinking older woman disgraced and suffering in self-exile in New Amsterdam; serving as the British Crown’s chief investigator of all things magical. Sebastian is a thousand year-old vampire, also in self-exile, looking to escape the trappings of the “Blood’s” (vampire) society in the fledgling British colonies.
In a series of linked stories we follow Garrett as she solves cases and gets tangled in the political strife between the colonial government and the crown. At the same time we follow Sebastian, working as a PI in the colonies, as he solves cases (crossing paths with Garret) and acquires a Court (a group of trusted/loved individuals he can feed on) and gets involved in the same political struggles as DCI Garrett. Each story is self-contained eventually forming a more cohesive narrative. Each is well paced, typically featuring a magical twist on a typical detective fiction trope (the first story is a “locked room” mystery) and each builds on the relationship between Sebastian and his Court.
Not being a huge fan of vampire stories this wasn’t a big draw for me but the world crafted by Bear was so vivid and compelling and as a result I wish more time was spent on Garrett and her personal story rather than on Sebastian. Sebastian isn’t a bad character, but he is familiar, the vampire as tragic hero type isn’t new, and was certainly less interesting (to me at least) than Miss Garrett. Regardless the world Bear crafted really drew me in and I would like to see more of it. Given the final events of the book a return to the Colonies and series on what’s going on there would definitely be something I’d read.
The book walks some interesting genre lines: urban fantasy, vampire fantasy (maybe romance, but not too much), alternate history but manages the balance in almost pitch-perfect harmony. Recommened overall for fantasy fans looking for something a little different, even those that hate vampires in their fantasy should at least give it a look, and fans of period fiction looking to branch out. If you’re hesitant, or can’t find a copy, check out Baen’s e-book service where you can find a sample chapter.