Those were the negatives. Against all of which, he had no weapons, allies, or special abilities other than his own native wit. (p. 196)
Dancing with Bears is a book heavily dependent on wit and any reader ready for this kind of amusement will enjoy it. The book is, thankfully, not merely jocular, in quite the same way that Aubrey Darger, from whose point of view the quote above is taken, has more than wits about him. It is quickly made clear that Darger and his associate Surplus are reputed to be "notorious confidence-men and swindlers who have defrauded [their] way through the entirety of Europe" (p. 7). Surplus is an American, as we are apparently meant to recognize from his full name—Sir Blackthorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Precieux. Technically, he is also a dog, his canine genome tweaked into human form. Quite what this means is never exactly made clear—but this book has not been written as an introduction to Darger and Surplus. I was not familiar with the protagonists before reading this book, or with the many of their adventures chronicled by the author, but such information isn't necessary to the enjoyment of this novel.
Dancing with Bears skitters lightly over the surface of the world without apology and almost without explanation, using the power and the pleasure of words to draw the reader.
It was half-empty, but in her desperate state, she welcomed it as half-full. (p. 143)
The author often uses such cliché to deliver meaning, creating an easy laugh in undermining the form whilst giving a powerful insight into the character referenced.
The key question with a book like this is whether there is anything beneath the comic surface. Fortunately there is considerable depth to provide more rounded pleasures than the simple sharing of a joke. There is a path to the book’s postutopian present from the preutopian world we live in, with evidence that the pseudo-Medieval is a successor to the twenty-first century. There is significantly more plot than Darger and Surplus choose to see themselves, as the world around them undergoes great convulsions. And there are interesting sexual politics afoot.
To take the last of these first. At the outset, we are shown seven virgins, gifts from the Caliph of Byzantium intended as brides for the Duke of Muscovy. They are shown purely as objects, as Pearls Beyond Price. However, as the book progresses, they move from object to subject. Their "girlish nature" sometimes suggests they are some harem equivalent of a girl band but they also show themselves capable of taking charge of their own destiny. They are never as simple as Darger and Surplus might wish them. Indeed, their leader in particular shows herself the equal of Surplus in both cunning and intellect.
The "postutopian" of the subtitle, meanwhile, is gradually elaborated upon over the course of the book without describing the departed Utopia. Darger and Surplus operate in a post-mechanized age, a time where machines and computers have been, as far as possible, destroyed. Still, remnants of that age have survived and become mysterious, near-magical sources of power. The terminology of magic is not much used in this novel, but the existence of the arcane is present throughout. Some of these are momentary amusements—the tutorial ale, which teaches the protagonists the Russian language but which can also be imbued with poetry on which you can become drunk—while others are necessities which progress the plot. All would appear to be derived from advanced technology such as nanotech or genetech, though these words are absent from the book. The narration no more attempts to explain such things than it does to describe the air its characters breathe—at least, until the air itself is sodden with psychedelic spores. It is the matching of the arcane with wit—more wordplay than swordplay—which makes Dancing with Bears a rare entrant into the small family of successful works in the Vancean form.
The plot of this—and I suspect every other—Darger and Surplus story is of their attempt to become magnificently wealthy without engaging in anything they would call work. In parallel with that narrative is the story of the impact of the rest of their party on Moscow, which is a battle between machine intelligences and human stupidity. The intelligences of the Internet would appear to have survived the end of Utopia and to have engendered a great hatred of all natural life. They plot to destroy humanity but, it would appear, rarely do they have the tools to further their ambitions. Here in Moscow, they reanimate Russian dreams of conquest through the iconography of Tsar Lenin. The alignment of the machines with human avarice gives them their opportunity to succeed, but they cannot take into account the seemingly irrelevant actions of Darger and Surplus, bent on cashing out, and the Pearls, wholly focused on completing their marriage to the Duke of Muscovy.
Chaos ensues, providing Swanwick with multiple opportunities to amuse himself and his readers with outrageous coincidences and unlikely outcomes. Whilst the punchlines sometimes appear as predicted, any obvious fairy tale endings are undermined. Instead, characters are freed from their default arcs and allowed to live individual lives. Except, of course, for Darger and Surplus, who must undergo a reset to allow their next story to begin.
Although there isn’t much to be said about the protagonists themselves, they provide an ingress to a rich and complex world and a clever plot, carefully shown rather than told. These aspects of the book will sustain any reader happy to engage in a very tall tale, very cleverly communicated. For anyone who has looked longingly at a copy of Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth and wished it thicker, this book may be thoroughly recommended.