The next book in my project of re-reading all the fiction I own (that is still on the shelves) is All the Windwracked Stars, by Elizabeth Bear. I actually replaced it with a Kindle version before re-reading it, along with buying the next two in the series (the series as a whole is called The Edda of Burdens). I know I've read this before, as I at least recognised the names of the protagonists and something of the world it is set in, but I remembered very little of the actual story so I might as well've been reading it for the first time.
We open with the end of the world in the aftermath of an apocalyptic battle, with the survivors - Kasimir, valraven steed of a slain waelcyrge; Muire, child of the Light, one of the wardens of Valdyrgard, poet, historian, metalworker; the Wolf, older than the world itself and has played his part in the ending of it. And after a chapter that establishes the characters (particularly Muire) the story jumps forward nearly two & a half thousand years to the aftermath of another apocalypse. As the book puts it:
Worlds, like gods, are a long time dying, and the deathblow dealt the children of the Light did not stop a civilization of mortal men from rising in their place, inventing medicine and philosophy, metallurgy and space flight.
Until they in turn fell, two-hundred-odd years ago, in a Desolation that left all Valdyrgard a salted garden. All of it, that is, except the two cities - Freimarc and Eiledon - that lingered. Life is tenacious. Even on the brink of death, it holds the battlements and snarls.
And in this end of the world, Muire, Kasimir and the Wolf still live among the shattered remnants of the human civilisation. It's a world of both technology and magic - where at one moment there are recognisable computing devices, and at another we're meeting a modified catwoman created from a cat, sorcery and a relic of the past or a modified ratman mage-engineer. The story is primarily Muire's, although parts are from other points of view. But she's the central figure, and we follow her from grief-stricken survivor's guilt through to a realisation that perhaps the world can be reborn (albeit at great cost to herself).
Muire is the linchpin round which the story turns, but I think there are two other legs the plot rests on - the Grey Wolf and Cathoair. The Wolf I've already mentioned, he starts in the position of an antagonist - and where Muire feels she should not have survived but somehow can't help but keep surviving, the Wolf is looking for death and not finding it. He's been drawn to Eiledon by a sense that a piece of his past is being misused by the mortal ruler of the city, and although he's no longer part of the company of the children of the Light he's still not willing to let such things be misused.
Cathoair is a different sort of character - at first sight less mythic, more everyday survivor. He's one of the mortal inhabitants of Eiledon, living in the slums and making a living in the fighting ring and as a prostitute. But his soul is that of one of Muire's brothers, returned to life at another ending of the world (although Cathoair never knows about his past life). He gets caught up in the conflict between Muire and the Grey Wolf, as they're both irresistibly drawn to the presence of someone they had both loved in the past. But he quickly becomes important in his own right, as even ordinary people can make a difference particularly when the world is ending.
The story takes place in a secondary world that is thoroughly steeped in Scandinavian mythology - as is presumably obvious just from the names of people and of things that I've mentioned in this review so far. The prose style also has something of that feel to it - recognising the subject matter as Norse in origin predisposes me to think this, but it often feels like some other language's poetry translated into English prose. Not all of it by any means, but bits like this do:
The song still burns through his mind, scourging, polishing. Stripping him clean.
Madness is nothing. Madness is an old friend, a comfort to him. He is the son of a god and a giantess. He is a god-monster. He is the Sun-eater. He was born to destruction, to mayhem, to wrath. The world is full of things that want destroying, and also full of those who do not covet destruction. So he was chained to the end of the world. There was a poem that was also a prophecy, and he lived it. The wolf, till world's end.
And now he is a wolf driven by the goad and the hunt, crazed by the cage and the chain. He is the wolf run mad --
One thing I particularly like about the world it's set in is that magic and technology aren't mutually exclusive. The bulk of the story is set in the remnants of a world that's at least as technologically advanced as ours, if not more so. But it also has working magic, and some of (all of?) the technology is magic based - magic doesn't replace the need for tech, nor vice versa. Which I think grows out of the Norse underpinnings of the world building - magic here is based on the word (runes, poetry, song) and also on metalworking. Muire as poet, historian, smith is also a mage, in a way that seems to go without saying. Some workings require music, some require working at the forge.
Having forgotten most of the story, I'd also forgotten how much I liked this book. I'm not sure why I didn't get round to buying the other two in the series till now, but at halfway through the next one I'm pleased I finally got round to it :)