Elizabeth Bear is one of my favourite authors these days, but I struggled with the start of All the Windwracked Stars. I don't mind being plunged in at the deep end and left to figure my own way out, but this world was so alien, built on such different assumptions that just a tiny bit more of a roadmap would have been helpful.
This book takes place on the world that was born after Ragnarok, at the end of the lifecycle of that world as well. "Our" world, Midgard, died, and was reborn as Valdyrgard, and now we are at the end again. Through the life of this world stalked the valkyrie (or, in this book, waelcyrge). The book begins with their deaths, fighting those who were once their brothers and sisters.
Muire, the smallest of the waelcyrge, survives, as does one steed, who chooses her. She lives through the rest of the world, the rise of man, the spread of Technomancy, the beginning of the end, and now the end.
That's all backstory, if you can believe it. (And very little of it is given at the beginning.)
Now, at the end, one city remains, willed into survival by the last Technomancer, with the aid of her unmans, the moreaux (animal/humans.) Muire must face her ancient enemy, and discover why the souls of the other waelcyrge, fallen so long ago, are being reborn in the people of the last city. And what the terrible price for survival has been.
Once I got up to speed, I enjoyed this book immensely. But for the first third, I floundered, trying desperately to figure out what the heck was going on. But as the pieces began to fall into place, I began to understand how well Bear had been layering in operatic emotions in simple language, the extent of the love and the risk and the horror only evident as new pieces of the puzzle were revealed.
Her characters are strong, complex, and fascinating. I could rhyme them off, but that would lose something in the translation. Just let it be said that good and evil, waelcyrge and tarnished are not simple categories, and the people that negotiate the end of the world are often short-sighted, honourable, stubborn, loving, and angry.
So in the end, I would highly recommend it. But you may feel as lost as I did at the beginning. It is worth pushing through.
But I'm not sure it needed to be quite that opaque.