Friday, August 1, 2008

“Ink and Steel” by Elizabeth Bear

FROM THE BOOKCOVER:
Kit Marley, poet, playwright and spy in the service of Queen Elizabeth, has been murdered. His true gift to Her Majesty was his way with words, crafting plays infused with a subtle magic that maintained her rule. He performed this task on behalf of the Prometheus Club, a secret society of nobles engaged in battle against sorcerers determined to destroy England. Assuming Marley's role is William Shakespeare— but he is unable to create the magic needed to hold the Queen's enemies at bay.

Resurrected by enchantment in Faerie, Marley is England's only hope. But before he can assist Will in the art of magic, he must uncover the traitor among the Prometheans responsible for his death...
Ink and Steel is a delicious historical fantasy part of a duology called The Stratford Man which concludes with Hell and Earth to be published in August. It is also a prequel to the excellent Blood and Iron (2006) and Whiskey and Water (2007) which are set in contemporary times. All of these books together are part of series called the Promethean Age that Campbell Award-winner Elizabeth Bear suggests on her website might encompass 12 volumes when complete.

This book took nearly three times longer to read then many other fantasy novels of comparable length and that is not a complaint but a measure of the sheer richness of the prose and the attention it deserves to savour its full impact. Not a paragraph is to be missed. As one might expect from a novel that features fictional interpretations of William (“Will”) Shakespeare and Christopher (“Kit”) Marlowe, the style and dialogue Bear has adopted is not dissimilar to a Shakespearean play. I found myself reaching for my dictionary frequently and more then once wishing I had a more classical education to fully appreciate the undoubtedly intensive research behind the story. In fact, Bear mentions in the brief Author’s Note that in the second book there is in her own words –
“A complete Author’s Note and Acknowledgements-enumerating the narrative’s extensive historical and linguistic malfeasances…”
I particularly enjoyed all of the scenes set in faerie and the echoing of the political machinations of the fairie court to those of Elizabeth’s mortal court and the various factions of the Prometheans. The exploration of Will’s relationship with his wife Annie is deftly handled and I found as the novel progressed that I wanted more and in fact a perhaps temporary HEA (Happily Ever After) is granted in the concluding “scenes”.

The London of the time is richly detailed and portrayed in surprisingly harsh but matter-of-fact way which I suppose it was for those living then. Kit and Will’s relationships between friends, enemies, lovers and each other are explored through conversations, letters, verse and considerable action bringing these complex characters to vivid life as they together seek to remain faithful Queen’s men and sustain Glorianna’s rule. Also delightful are the many references to Shakespeare’s plays woven into the story- how they were formulated and for what purpose and the true role of a “playwright” among the Prometheans.

Despite the fact that the novel is only the first half of a duology, it concludes in a very satisfying manner and sets the stage for what will surely be a rousing conclusion in the next volume. Be prepared to set some significant time aside to appreciate this above average historical fantasy and its’ concluding volume. Highly recommended.

Read excerpts for the Prologue, Act I, scene I, Act I, scene ii, and Act I, scene iii.

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