There is no more surefire signifier of the alternate history novel than the zeppelin. One giant commercial dirigible hanging in the background is all you need to say “This world is not our world. This is a place where things are/were different.” And, often enough, a signifier is all the zeppelin remains. They’re cool, they’re different, and they’re background.
Which brings us to Elizabeth Bear’s episodic novel New Amsterdam, which goes all in on the alternate history sweepstakes from page one. New Amsterdam doesn’t just show us zeppelins cruising leisurely in the background, oh no. Instead, it starts on one, a trans-Atlantic luxury passenger vessel headed to the British colony of New Amsterdam in an alternate history where turn-of-the-20th-century America doesn’t exist but magic does.
And on board is a vampire, currently known as Sebastien de Ulloa, who is heading to the New World for reasons of his own. Accompanied only by his trusted companion and lover, Mr. Priest, Ulloa just happens to be a skilled detective, as well as being unimaginably old. Which, of course, sets us up for a magical steampunk rendition of Murder on the Orient Express, complete with sex, magic, and the occasional bout of blood-drinking.
Eventually, the mystery is solved and de Ulloa arrives in New Amsterdam, a city which just happens to have a governor who wants to secede from the British Empire and a hard-drinking, sexually independent forensic sorceress on the police payroll. The sorceress in question, Abigail Irene Garrett, is also the mistress of the colony’s governor (married and a prince of the realm) and the ex-girlfriend of one of his brothers. She spooks out regular policemen, deals with ingrained sexism, and solves murders like nobody’s business. And it is while investigating a particularly horrific murder that she first encounters Ulloa, and the two rapidly form an alliance that is personal, professional, and ultimately political. By the time the sequence of stories that make up the book has ended, they and their extended circle have gone from New Amsterdam to Boston to Paris, from loyal subjects of the Crown to seditious revolutionaries, and from respected members of society to something quite different.
Oh, and along the way, they solve a few murders.
But reading New Amsterdam for the mysteries is missing the point. As mysteries, they’re nothing special. There’s usually one suspect, who gets introduced late in the game, and their motivations are often given as exposition as opposed to revealed. If the mysteries themselves were the point, that would be aggravating.
They’re not, though, and that’s what makes the difference. New Amsterdam is about Ulloa and Garrett, their growth and change and evolution. It is about how others react to them, and to the unconventional family that chooses to form itself around the one figure destined to outlive the rest of it. The murders are a means of instigating the character interactions, and as such, they do admirably. Bear plays with the classic images of both genres — the locked room mystery, the ever-intriguing Tesla — but ultimately lets them serve as supporting elements to the intriguing, and ultimately touching human story she is telling.
(Subterranean Press, 2007)