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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Two amazing rogues in a vivid, unique balkanized future
DANCING WITH BEARS is the first novel about Michael Swanwick's series characters Darger and Surplus, but not their first story -- as the words "series characters" probably tipped you off -- since they've previously appeared in three shorter pieces starting with "The Dog Said Bow-Wow." (Those three stories are all collected in Swanwick's most recent assemblage of new short...
Published on January 28, 2012 by Andrew C Wheeler

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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Swanwick novel gone astray
Swanwick is one of my favorite writers - I buy each new book of his as soon as it is available for pre-order - but it's looking like the Vacuum Flowers 'verse, the short stories like "The Dead" from the late 90s, and _The Iron Dragon's Daughter_ were his peak. (A peak that to me is the best sf/f since _The Book of the New Sun_.) The new novel is set in the dystopian...
Published on May 15, 2011 by Philip Hart


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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Swanwick novel gone astray, May 15, 2011
By 
Philip Hart (San Francisco, CA United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Dancing with Bears (Hardcover)
Swanwick is one of my favorite writers - I buy each new book of his as soon as it is available for pre-order - but it's looking like the Vacuum Flowers 'verse, the short stories like "The Dead" from the late 90s, and _The Iron Dragon's Daughter_ were his peak. (A peak that to me is the best sf/f since _The Book of the New Sun_.) The new novel is set in the dystopian future of the Surplus/Darger stories (which I think are just ok) from _The Dog Said Bow-Wow_. Unfortunately it doesn't have enough of either, spreading the POV over a variety of characters several of whom I didn't care about. Readers of _The Dragons of Babel_ will recognize various elements here - the cons, the somewhat steampunk feel, the vast city aboveground and under inhabited by people more and less than human - but there's no character development, or creative joy that leavens the horrific parts of the action. And while there wasn't anything as frustrating as the resolution of the underground section of that novel, I just stopped caring what happened about half way through _Dancing With Bears_. And there are some things that just didn't work for me, like an extended description of girls dressing that came across like bad Heinlein at his most leering, and several transformations that seemed more imposed than organic, and various revelations or resolutions that were too predictable.

As usual the prose is of the highest quality, and there's a short sequence toward the end of chapter 5 which I'll treasure for its stunning beauty and simplicity. And those interested in Moscow as a place might get more out of this than I did. And even as perhaps his worst novel it's a lot better than most of what's out there. But this is probably best for Swanwick completists like me and readers who enjoyed the Surplus/Darger stories from _The Dog Said Bow-Wow_ more than the others.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Two amazing rogues in a vivid, unique balkanized future, January 28, 2012
By 
Andrew C Wheeler (Pompton Lakes, NJ United States) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: Dancing with Bears: A Darger & Surplus Novel (Paperback)
DANCING WITH BEARS is the first novel about Michael Swanwick's series characters Darger and Surplus, but not their first story -- as the words "series characters" probably tipped you off -- since they've previously appeared in three shorter pieces starting with "The Dog Said Bow-Wow." (Those three stories are all collected in Swanwick's most recent assemblage of new short fiction, which, coincidentally, is also named The Dog Said Bow-Wow.) Darger and Surplus are, as I just said, con men -- they traipse through a complicated, gaudy and dangerous post-apocalyptic future a few centuries on, in which a Singularity was more or less tamped down, with the cold and cruel AIs scheming in various data-storage devices to slaughter any life they can whenever they get a chance. Technology has turned biological -- Surplus himself is an uplifted dog, more or less, and is the flamboyant American to Darger's quietly nondescript Brit -- and the world is a patchwork of small and medium-sized polities, full of wonders, treasure, and lovely women, all of which Darger and Surplus endeavor to take for themselves. (Though usually with spectacularly dangerous, and not particularly remunerative, results.)

Darger and Surplus are something like the post-historical version of Fritz Leiber's great sword & sorcery duo, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, though Swanwick's heroes rely much more on their wits, and are typically vastly overmatched in the violence department (unlike Leiber's swordsmen, who are good enough to fight their way out of nearly every situation they encountered). And Swanwick uses appropriate prose for their tales: long, rolling sentences, a wry, world-weary tone, crackling dialogue, and just enough description of the bizarre world to keep the story hurtling forward.

Taking them to novel length meant that Swanwick had to weave an even more intricate plot around them than before, which unfortunately does mean that Darger and Surplus are not at the center of DANCING WITH BEARS quite as much as I might have hoped -- they set the action in motion, but they disappear for chapters at a time, and the focus is wider than the two con men. This time around, we meet them in mid-journey, just as Prince Achmed, the envoy from the Caliph of Byzantium to the Duke of Muscovy, has learned that his two learned and experienced guides are actually nothing of the sort. Achmed, like so many of Darger and Surplus's temporary companions, doesn't last too long in this story, but Byzantium's gift -- a group of bioengineered young women, the Pearls Beyond Price, designed to be the perfect courtly lovers and wives to their noble husband the Duke -- continues onward to Moscow, guarded by a group of fanatically loyal and massively powerful Neanderthals and somewhat guided by our con-men heroes.

And of course matters in Moscow -- and in Russia in general -- are less settled, and more complicated, than anyone anticipated: just to begin with, the Duke is never seen in public, and admits no one for an audience, so how are his gifts to be delivered? As usual with a mysterious, hidden leader, there are factions that would be quite happy to replace him with a more visible face of Muscovy -- themselves, for example. And what of the fanatic Koschei the strannik, a wanderer with plans of his own? Worse, the demons of Russia -- those AIs -- are not as dead or walled away from the physical world as in more civilized regions, and the path of the Caliph's party passes directly through a former oil refinery, now a manufactory for mechanical beasts to kill humans. And the demons have larger plans than that -- a plot well in motion to kill all of Muscovy, and much of the rest of the world, with forgotten megaweapons from before the apocalypse.

All Darger and Surplus want is to find a way to make a vast fortune and get out of Moscow with it -- and their skins -- intact. Is that so much to ask?

DANCING WITH BEARS is a splendid romp, a tour through a strange future, and an enthralling adventure -- I won't recommend it to any readers looking for morals in their novels, but for all of the rest of us, it's a great way to spend a few hours. (And reading about them is the only way I'd recommend spending time with Darger and Surplus!)
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A little better than standard SF fare, September 21, 2011
This review is from: Dancing with Bears (Hardcover)
I saw this on the new books shelf (Science Fiction) at my local public library and, being unfamiliar with the author, picked it up serendipitously. While reading it I kept thinking I'd missed something and kept mixing up the two characters of Darger and Surplus. It was only after I completed the book that I discovered that Darger and Surplus were characters from several previously published short stories by the author, and this was the initial novelization of the characters. I immediately thought "ah ha!" Early in the book I was regularly backtracking to determine who was whom - who had the dog genome? I hypothesize that since the characters already were carrying some baggage (with which I was unaware), that Swanwick had succumbed somewhat to familiarity with his creations and wasn't clearly delineating them to a new reader. I'm very interested in reading the earlier short stories, to "go back" and read them as prequels.

Also, I always get Russian names confused (my fault for not persevering with War and Peace in 9th grade). I remember reading Niven and Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye and constantly referring to the list of characters supplied at the front of that book. Such a list of dramatis personae would have helped me.

The story moved along nicely, but never really got to me as a whole. Certain scenes, characters, and descriptions would periodically jump out and startle me, but the novel in its entirety just never caught any real fire. The entire arc of the character of the Duke of Muscovy was pretty disappointing. Swanwick was setting up plot and characters that had real potential, but I just don't think he followed through enough in this book.

Nonetheless, the tale was good enough to keep me to the end and I wasn't bored reading the book whatsoever. Though the entertainment factor wasn't of the highest, it was pretty fair fare in the end. If I could give this book 3.5 out of 5 stars I would. That is, I liked it, just not enthusiastically.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars I want the real Swanwick back, December 7, 2012
This review is from: Dancing with Bears: A Darger & Surplus Novel (Paperback)
Ok so, Michael Swanwick, has won a lot of awards. I loved his book "Vacuum Flowers" and I also liked two of his short stories, on of them being "Dalla Horse" I can't remember the other. Unfortunately this book was not nearly up to those standards. I give it two stars, simply because the book was well written, even if I had major issues with the plot and the characters.

The book is an extension of some short stories that Swanwick wrote (I think) about two confidence men, Darger and Surplus. This book follows their adventures to and in Moscow, Russia.

First off, I don't really feel like I understand the main characters any more after having read the book, than I did before hand. Maybe Swanwick did a lot more characterization in his other stories (which I haven't read), but basically I had no investment in these two. And these were ostensibly the protagonists, I felt even less attachment to the minor characters.

The second big beef I had was the humor. I feel like Darger and Surplus were supposed to be funny and amusing, and endear themselves to the reader because of it. Unfortunately this did not come across very well. It took me half the book to realize that scenes /circumstances that I had just read through without much thought, or even a, "That sound a bit rediculous, why is that here?" were supposed to be humorous in a slapstick/awkward circumstances kind of way. It just didn't come across very well.

Final beef: The plot. It seemed a little thin to me. It seemed mostly focused on the aforementioned "humorous" circumstances, and less on the plot as a whole. I think this could have been pulled off, if the humor worked better. However, I don't think we ever really have a good understanding of what Darger and Suplus's con was supposed to be. Ostensibly, this was the whole reason for their trip to Moscow in the first place, and if the con was a failure, it seems to me that it might have been better if we knew more of what their plan was, so as to see how much the con was blown to bits. That is just one example.

Anyway, I don't want to finish this review without giving Swanwick some props for the world he built. It seems like it has a lot of potential. Post utopian decline precipitated by the rebellion of AI's and the resulting destruction of the internet. Really cool, I think it could be a great setting for stories to come, I just don't think its potential was fully realized.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable post-utopian world and interesting characters, September 2, 2011
This review is from: Dancing with Bears (Hardcover)
The world is an ugly place with the ruins of technological civilization everywhere, angry A.I. devices scheming to destroy their human creators, and continued war between human survivors. A caravan traveling between the Caliph in Byzantium and his ally, the duke of Moscovy, brings a bevy of beautiful Byzantine women genetically designed to provide pleasure (of all kinds including intellectual as well as physical), along with an ambassador, a small army of genetically modified neanderthals and a couple of confidence men who attached themselves earlier. When cyber-wolves attack, wounding the ambassador, he decides to end the mission, have the women killed, and return the neanderthals to Byzantium. Fortunately for the women, confidence men Dager and Surplus are able to substitute a forged will, and continue the journey with dog-man Surplus as nominal ambassador.

Moscow is home to countless plots as generals, secret agents, religious zealots and underworld mutants vie for power. Although the Duke of Moscovy is supposedly all-powerful, he is never seen... something of a challenge for the beautiful women sent to be his brides. While the head of the Duke's secret service plots his overthrow, a group of holy men pursue a deeper plan...to bring the hand of god, in the form of complete destruction, to Moscow.

Author Michael Swanwick creates an intriguing future world with genetically modified people, underground demon-A.I.s, and strange Russians pursuing their ideals without concern for anyone who gets in their way. In this world, Darger and Surplus hope to make off with some of the incredible treasures of Russia's past, but staying alive proves to be something of a challenge. Even the beautiful brides grow increasingly frustrated and, while they may have been created to serve as entertainment, they are truly dangerous.

I enjoyed Stanwick's created world, but I enjoyed his characters even more. While Surplus and Darger were interesting, Pepsicolva and Zoesophia really steal the show. DANCING WITH BEARS was an enjoyable treat--hard to put down.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fine Post Utopian Dystopian Steampunk Romp Courtesy of Darger and Surplus, September 24, 2011
This review is from: Dancing with Bears (Hardcover)
Vampire novels to the left of us, zombie novels to our right, with dystopian novels in our midst; such is the current dismal state of affairs in publishing science fiction. Most of these aren't worth the paper they are printed on, even if they are from some of our best known authors or the latest literary darlings aspiring toward artistic and commercial success, claiming to have both a firm appreciation and understanding of science fiction's storied past. That one of science fiction's greatest writers, Michael Swanwick, can have his newest novel published only by a boutique publisher, Night Shade Books, not a major publisher like Simon and Schuster, is emblematic of what is amiss now in publishing science fiction. It's a bleak status that can be rectified only if readers go out and buy in droves, the very good to great literature written still by the likes of Swanwick and others.

"Dancing with Bears" isn't Michael Swanwick at his best, but it comes quite close, reminding us that he remains among our finest prose stylists in contemporary science fiction literature. It's an irresistible swashbuckling dystopian steampunk page turner chronicling the latest exploits of con artists Aubrey Darger and Sir Blackthrope Ravenscairn de Plus Precieux (aka Surplus) ,his bioengineered humanoid canine companion, whose previous adventures have been noted in such classic Swanwick short stories like "The Dog Said Bow-Wow" , "The Little Cat Laughed To See Such Sport", and "Girls and Boys, Come Out To Play" (all three collected in his recent short story collection "The Dog Said Bow-Wow"). While fans of Darger and Surplus will miss their constant companionship in "Dancing With Bears", they will be delighted with the snappy, often insolent, dialogue uttered by both, as they seek their fortune and confront danger in a PostUtopian (distant future) Moscow. However, the reader doesn't require prior familiarity with Darger and Surplus to enjoy reading this novel on its own merits; Swanwick has added other, equally compelling, characters, like Anya Pepsicolova, Darger's frequent companion as they confront those seeking to revive a Russian "tsar" from Russia's Utopian past (early 20th Century).

If you are new to Swanwick but have enjoyed Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash" and Gary Shteyngart's "Super Sad True Love Story", then you won't be disappointed with "Dancing With Bears". Like those other two great works of comedic science fiction, I found it impossible to put down, and, all too often, hilarious, even in scenes replete with ample mayhem and gore. "Dancing With Bears" may not exhibit the same high literary craft Swanwick has demonstrated previously in his great novels "Stations of the Tide", "The Iron Dragon's Daughter" and "Jack Faust", but remains astonishingly close, and is a better, far more entertaining, read than virtually all of the newly published novels in science fiction and fantasy. If nothing else, Swanwick demonstrates once more that he is as fine a literary stylist as his fellow cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson, and one worthy of comparison not only to him but also to the likes of Samuel Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin and China Mieville.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars In the middle for Swanwick, August 15, 2011
By 
Edgewood Smith "*" (Duluth, MN United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Dancing with Bears (Hardcover)
Dancing With Bears is long-form Darger/Surplus story. Previously we have seen these characters in a number of short stories that gradually across Europe in a far flung time where sophisticated machines have given way to bio/gene-engineering. The remains of the pre-utopia times (that's us, now) are buried, often feared, sometimes coveted.

Swanwick is undisputed-ly one of my all time favorite short story authors. His craft with that form is breathtaking at times. Novel wise, it tends to be hit or miss, and Dancing With Bears is about in the middle of the pack for me.

I would argue that Stations of the Tide is so far his best novel length story. It is a wholly crafted universe, with a story that can leave you dizzy at times and it all hangs together trough to the end very well.

Second on the list would be Dragons of Babel, who's only real weak point is that it feels like a series of short stories that where strung together and then called a novel. Taken separately the chapters are in turns brilliant and hilarious, evocative and harrowing. Put them all together and the slight disjoint makes it just a little less then the sum of it's parts. I still read this book from time to time and enjoy it immensely, but that puzzle piece nature still pops out to me.

And here is where Dancing with Bears(DWB) comes in. A tie for third place, between this and Iron Dragon's Daughter(IDD). IDD is in the same universe as Dragons of Babel (and preceded that novel by quite some time). _Both these books are good books_. To my mind the prose does not pop as well as either his short stories, or the two previous mentioned novels. There are places they drag rather than soar. DWB takes two characters I really love, and then separates then for most of the book and so the interaction that was part of the charm of the short stories of Darger and Surplus is gone. Some of the other ancillary plot lines/charterers should have been either developed more, or just cut out in favor of making the remaining story/characters more developed. The ending felt just a little rushed, but that may be just my sensitivity to such matters.

Now, having said that, I always find Swanwick's universes worth exploring they are delightful and well rounded with good internal logic. If you are unsure about it, check DWB out at the library, before purchasing, and give it a test drive.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining con men (man and dog) in an intricately detailed world, March 5, 2013
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Swanwick has written an interesting twist on a post-apocalyptic world, with his genial protagonists roaming a post-utopian (non-wired) future Europe taking advantage of everyone they can - with varied degrees of success. As always, his prose is lovely, though the quality of the writing never gets in the way of the story. I highly recommend Dancing with Bears if you like rascals and funny stories.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars GREAT FUN, March 21, 2012
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Michael Swanwick's best works rank up there with anyone. I first met Darger and Surplus in a short story and immediately fell in love with these characters. This book brings us back to this fascinating post-apocalyptic world and introduces some good characters, interesting technology and multiple plot twists. This is a much "lighter" book than most post-apocalyptic novels. Highly recommended.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A darn good yarn, December 24, 2011
This review is from: Dancing with Bears: A Darger & Surplus Novel (Paperback)
Once again, Swanwick shows us just why he is such a popular and award-winning writer. Each character is beautifully drawn, and memorably delineated by imperfection. Then, they are thrown into a warped future Moscow that twists and turns the plot with adventures and, of course, a revolution. A darn good yarn.
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Dancing with Bears: A Darger & Surplus Novel
Dancing with Bears: A Darger & Surplus Novel by Michael Swanwick (Paperback - January 25, 2012)
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