Elizabeth Bear has put me in an odd position: I read Blood and Iron, loved it, found it rich, stimulating -- altogether an extraordinary book. I've now read Carnival, her latest, and find myself without much to say.
Well, not entirely, but you have to admit, this doesn't happen very often.
Vincent Katherinessen and Michelangelo Kusagani-Jones are diplomats sent from the Old Earth Colonial Coalition to New Amazonia. The Coalition has a habit of swallowing its former colonies, and New Amazonia appears to have something the Coalition wants very much -- an apparently unlimited energy source. The pretext for this visit is the return of priceless art treasures plundered in a recent war, as a prelude to normalizing relations. Vincent and Angelo are met by Lesa Pretoria, daughter of Elena, the head of House Pretoria, and a high-ranking member of the Amazonian government. The two diplomats have arrived just in time for Carnival.
Someone tries to assassinate Vincent -- or maybe the target is Claude Singapore, the prime minister. There is an attempted kidnapping, aimed at Vincent. Claude, because she has lost face being protected by Angelo, challenges Vincent to a duel (Vincent is the head of the delegation, and so responsible for Angelo.). Lesa's favorite stud male, Robert, disappears, and may be linked to a male-equality dissident group.
And those are just the political wrinkles -- the personal relationships are equally tangled, and everyone is getting ready to betray someone.
Carnival, more than most of the books I've read recently, supports my long-time contention that science fiction and fantasy offer an ideal means of social commentary. In this case, it is a collision of cultures. Old Earth is patriarchal, austere, and more than a little totalitarian, the result of an act of ecoterrorism some centuries before that left the planet decimated and subject to strong environmental regulations and strict limits on population and behavioral quirks: "deviant" behavior is frowned upon, and anyone who doesn't fit the parameters programmed into the Governors, humanity's cybernetic overseers, is subject to "Assessment." That's a euphemism for eliminated. New Amazonia, on the other hand, is matriarchal, democratic (mostly), and survives on alien technology and the products of the natural world. There are two classes of men, studs and "gentle," which is the Amazonian euphemism for homosexual. Ironically, Vincent and Angelo are, apparently, the only two diplomats in Old Earth service who could have undertaken this mission: they had been lovers in the past, a relationship that resumes very shortly into the book. (One question that I don't remember being answered in the story is simply why Vincent and Angelo were chosen for a mission to a matriarchal planet, when their relationship was a closely guarded secret and their last mission ended in disaster? Happenstance? In a novel?)
In fact, the major focus of Carnival seems to be social criticism. It's soon apparent that "pure" ideology doesn't create viable societies, as we begin to realize that everyone involved is about to betray their governments one way or another, and that the reality of human relationships doesn't really fit into an ideological mold very well. And, as we've seen so often in recent years, those seemingly most rigid in enforcing those ideals often are those least likely to adhere to them -- reality tends to be a bit too intrusive, even if unacknowledged. It's really a political book in a lot of ways.
However, don't look for the layers of intrigue one might expect from C. J. Cherryh, or the curves thrown by blind chance, as in Glen Cook, or even the workings of eccentricity, a la Michael Moorcock -- they're not there. In fact, by those standards the story is fairly uncomplicated. Nor do the characters drive the story the way one might wish, although they are strongly drawn and sympathetic. They just don't connect on that level.
That said, and I admit that it's a bit more than "not much," I enjoyed Carnival thoroughly, even though I didn't find it particularly subtle or challenging. But, there's something to be said for a well-written, engaging story about ideas, particularly when the ideas are not belabored and the cast is attractive.
Elizabeth Bear can be found on the Web here.