Sunday, March 8, 2020

Ink and Steel

Elizabeth Bear
Completed 3/8/2020, Reviewed 3/8/2020
4 stars

This book seemed like two books:  one a complicated mystery and the other an “urban” fantasy, all set in Elizabethan England and the realm of the Fae.  The mystery part I didn’t like too well.  It had a lot of characters to follow and seemed to meander.  The other part, the fantasy part, was pretty tight, especially in the last third of the book.  It didn’t make everything come together as this is the first part of a duology.  In fact, it’s the third book in a four-book series, but this is a prequel to the first two, and it’s quite self-contained.  It doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, but it doesn’t resolve the mystery.  This book, with its sequel “Hell and Earth”, won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 2009. 

I found the plot pretty convoluted.  There is an organization called the Prometheans which keeps Queen Elizabeth I on the throne of England.  They do this by employing the poet and playwright Christopher “Kit” Marlowe to write plays with magic in them.  When Kit is murdered, they bring in the up and coming William Shakespeare to fill his shoes.  Unbeknownst to the Prometheans, Kit is “resurrected” by the faeries and a glamour buried in his place.  Kit is tricked into drinking faerie wine which binds him to the faerie world, where their Queen Maeb has special plans for him.  Kit only gets to go back to the real world on occasion, and when he does, he meets with Will to prevent him from being murdered as well.  The two work together to try to find the traitor in the Prometheans that murdered Kit in the first place.  While rereading this paragraph, I realize it doesn’t sound convoluted, but trust me, in reading the book, the plot is anything but clear.

Kit and Will are the two main characters.  The point of view of the book alternates between the two of them, following them as their relationship and the mystery develops.  Kit is a gay atheist, who supposedly blasphemes as he lay dying.  This makes him and his works anathema, so the contact between Kit and Will is very secretive.  The two even write letters with invisible content to each other (the lemon juice trick) to protect Will.  And since time is different in the two worlds, each doesn’t know how much time has gone by in the other.  It is during these written and physical encounters that their characters really develop.  When the other Prometheans are involved, it’s just a mess of too many people under suspicion. 

In terms of character development, I really liked how we get to know Will not only through his relationship with Kit, but also with his wife Anne.  For the most part, he is living in London while she is in Stratford.  He regrets not seeing her and his children, but he’s pretty much bound to working in London, where there is plague.  And he probably can’t afford to keep them in London anyway.  This conflict tells us a lot about Will and also about Anne as well.  We don’t get her perspective, but it comes through the dialogue we do get between the two of them.

Speaking of the dialogue, it is written in very Elizabethan English, with the non-dialogue parts in modern English.  I found it very difficult to get into.  This may have been why I found the mystery part, which is mostly in the first two-thirds, such a slog.  This happens when I see a Shakespearean play as well.  It usually takes my ear some time to get accustomed to the old English.  But reading it was very difficult.  And the dialogue isn’t very direct; it’s very circuitous.  It seems that no one says what they mean, and when they do it’s not always very clear.  So besides the plethora of suspects, where I couldn’t remember who was who, I usually had trouble figuring out who or what they were talking about. 

The best part of the book is the last third.  It’s simply riveting.  It takes place in Faerie and in Hell.  Lucifer makes an appearance before this section, but obviously plays heavily in this part.  You see, the realm of Faerie is protected by Hell, and they must tithe one Fae every seven years as their payment for this service.  Saying anything more would be a spoiler, but Kit and Will are both involved in this part of the book.

Despite my trouble getting into it, once I did, I couldn’t put it down.  In fact, I eventually want to get to the next book because of that.  So I’m giving it four stars out of five.  I think if you enjoy reading Shakespeare’s plays, you’ll like this as well.  The prose is wonderful.  And I think that if you like mysteries, you might also like this.  The bummer is that it’s not been published in e-reader format.  I don’t know if it’s still in print; I got my copy from the library.  But I do recommend this book if you’re willing to give it some effort, because it does require some heavy concentration. 

No comments:

Post a Comment