Monday, September 10, 2007

Blood and Iron, by Elizabeth Bear

Blood and Iron
Elizabeth Bear
Roc: 2006

Elizabeth Bear on The Promethean Age:
Assuming that I am alive to write them, and that people like you keep buying enough of them to make it worthwhile for my publishers to keep printing more, my plans for the Promethean Age series are rather ambitious. The four novels listed at the top of the page are only the beginning of the vast mad edifice I hope someday to construct. Essentially, the idea is a cycle of some twelve or more books, each of them exploring an aspect of the five-hundred-year-long secret war between Faerie and the human magi of the Prometheus Club. A secret history of sorts, in other words. Oh, Gods, you groan, not another interminable fantasy series--

But no! Wait! Hear me out! Because the magic of this, you see, is that each book stands alone. Or, at the very worst, is part of a duology.

Normally I would be filled with trepidation at the thought of another interminable fantasy series. I've read far too many of those and I think half of them still have not come to a close. I meant for Hammered to be my first foray into Elizabeth Bear's novel length fiction but my library only had one or two copies and both were out and there was a hold list. Instead I grabbed Blood and Iron off of the bookshelf and gave it a go. I knew this was something of a modern day fantasy with magic and technology mixing. That's all I knew and I had no idea what I was getting into.

Over the course of 400 + pages Elizabeth Bear weaves a story of what feels like it could be the final battle between humanity and the faerie. The Magi, human born mages, are hunting the faerie and hunting the new Merlin coming into its powers. The Merlin is not necessarily the Merlin of legend, but is a spiritual descendant. Once every several generations a Merlin comes into his powers and can be a great force for either faerie or humanity. Normally the Merlin already has his full power and needs to be seduced into supporting the faerie, but this Merlin is not fully formed yet. The faerie's Seeker is hunting the Merlin. The Magi's Matthew Magus is hoping to get to the Merlin first and perhaps finally take care of the faerie.

At the beginning of Blood and Iron there is a sense that Matthew Magus is the true hero of the story, but Bear flips things around a bit and as we learn more of the Seeker and the faerie the reader’s sympathies switch to the Seeker rather than the humans. But, things are more complicated than that because the Seeker is / was human herself but is held in thrall by the Daoine Sidhe faerie queen who knows her True Name. The Seeker serves because she must, but also because the Queen holds her son.

Blood and Iron is more complicated than that. Elizabeth Bear weaves in werewolves, faerie legend, the Arthurian Legend with Morgan and Mordred and Arthur, Shakespeare with Puck, magic, dragons, unicorns, and even more to coalesce into a novel that is far greater than its individual parts. Blood and Iron has a slow build, a phrase I realize I use too often in describing fiction, but the first hundred pages are solid and yet not enough to truly hook the reader. We know that the prose is well thought out and well written but not fully compelling. We’re not sure where Bear is taking us yet. As Blood and Iron progresses and we are brought deeper and deeper into this world of faerie and human and myth and legend Elizabeth Bear's storytelling sinks its talons in and doesn't let go. Elizabeth Bear rewards the reader who is willing to persevere and invest the time and effort into this novel. Blood and Iron is a novel which actually gets better with each passing page.

Elizabeth Bear's concept for The Promethean Age is unbelievably ambitious and complex and had I known her plans before I started Blood and Iron I might have been put off. Had I known what Blood and Iron was all about before flipping to the first page I am not sure I would have given it a go. Somehow the blending of faeries and humans in a modern day setting does not light a fire under my literary bum. Having read Blood and Iron and having been astounded by just how good it is and how well told and well written the novel is, I cannot wait for the chance to read Whiskey and Water, the next novel of The Promethean Age. The Promethean Age is an ambitious project to say the least. But, I have read Blood and Iron. It's one of the best damn novels I have read this year. Literary in the best possible sense and filled with the Fantastic. Elizabeth Bear might just be good enough to pull the whole thing off, and she is likely to only improve with each book. Imagine that. She's just going to get better than what she accomplished with this beautifully written novel: Blood and Iron.

Some of Elizabeth Bear's short fiction is available on her website, including several Promethean Age stories.


Todd said...

I've never read any of Ms. Bear's work yet but I'm curiuous if she's strong on her characterizations.
I've read soooo many fantasy books the last several years that I find if the characters aren't strong then I more than likely won't care for the work. This isn't 100% foolproof of course but it seems to be my main criteria for "finding" a new author to enjoy.
GRRM, Robin Hobb, Scott Lynch and that new (awesome) fella Patrick Rothfuss are perfect examples and among my favorite writers. Surprisingly when it comes to sci-fi and fantasy I find that the characters are often wooden or stand behind the plot of the story and my enjoyment is not as strong.
Anyways, just curious as I'm always on the lookout for new writers to fall in love with :-)

Joe said...

I think her characters here were very strong and only got stronger as the novel progressed...and I know what you mean about Martin / Hobb / Lynch.

I can't speak for Bear's science fiction, but this one is worth a go.

SQT said...

I have this but haven't gotten to it yet. Sounds like I need to.