Darger and Surplus are con men who have lied there way onto a caravan carrying a gift of immense value from the Caliph of Baghdad to the Duke of Moscovy. But there are obstacles in the way of getting the gift to the Duke, which embroils the characters in political schemes, the agendas of religious zealots, drug rings and so forth. So yes, this is our earth. But the difference is in the details—and there are a lot of details.
A world both familiar and alien
The most important aspect of this book for me was the worldbuilding. Swanwick has created a masterpiece in this book. While some novels with an alternate earth coast by and change a few things here and there, often just lifting a Feudal or Victorian era society and tweaking it, Swanwick has made a world so detailed and unique that it grabs you by the throat and screams, “Be interested.”
The back-story is something I won’t go into details about to avoid spoilers, but I will say that this is a future earth, despite its deficiencies and advances in science. Electric wizards and gene manipulators, Neanderthals from the gene vats of the new Byzantium Empire and part man, part bear hybrids are just a fraction of the new society. While this book is classified as steampunk, it is more science fiction, since genetic manipulation is the biggest scientific advancement of this world.
The small, often frivolous things that people create with technology are overlooked by many authors, who focus instead on the story-changing ideas that, while important, make the world quite shallow, only existing in the epic dimension. In Dancing with Bears, however, inventions such as alcohol with nanoprogrammers that teach poetry and language when drunk or bioluminescent fungi for non-flammable lighting give the book an air of reality and firmness that few authors pull off.
A dizzying but slightly disappointing story
When I picked this book up, I was expecting a story similar to the Gentlemen Bastards series by Scott Lynch. I imagined a daring tale of thievery and intricate plans that ends in glory or defeat.
Dancing with Bears takes a more intricate route, though. It builds a story with over half a dozen viewpoint characters that jump around faster than you can turn pages. It grows, keeping you guessing, revealing new twists and information with each chapter to keep you interested. Despite this, I felt a tad disappointed; it lacked much of the action and actual conning that I expected until the last quarter of the novel.
This story is extremely layered. We have the protagonists’ attempt to gain the audience with the Duke of Moscovy, the religious zealots with a hedonistic philosophy spreading drugs around the city’s gentry, and the underground of shady figures dealing in large transactions that relate to the land above as well as below. It all mixes and crosses over in a way that is best appreciated in a second read.
Characters that are interesting yet relatable
The characters of Dancing with Bears are generally complex. Considering that there are at least eight recurring point of views in the story, you have to keep track of who is who and what are they doing. But the characters are all unique and different enough from one another that there is little confusion.
However, I felt that the titled characters, Darger and Surplus, may have not had enough page time to warrant them being the key characters of Dancing with Bears. While Darger was my favourite character with his subtle and sophisticated humor, he did perhaps the least of any of the viewpoint characters story-wise.
Surplus was interesting, as he was not human but a genetically altered dog from America. He was much more heavily integral in the story and had an air of affable solidity that made him a very relatable character.
Why should you read this book?
If you are looking for a book that doesn’t feel full of stale tropes and clichés, then this is for you. It has some amazing worldbuilding and characters. If you enjoy a complex story that will keep you guessing, you will definitely enjoy Dancing with Bears.