fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsInk and Steel by Elizabeth Bear fantasy book reviewsInk and Steel by Elizabeth Bear

A blend of history and fantasy is what typifies Elizabeth Bear’s body of work, as does her reliance on folklore and literary references to craft her tales. The more you know about her favoured subject matter, whether it be Shakespeare, Elizabethan England, Faerie, or Arthurian legend, the better you’ll be able to enjoy her books, for Bear doesn’t suffer fools and seldom slows down to explain precisely what’s going on. Ink and Steel requires your utmost attention if you’re to follow it, so don’t think you can pick this one up for a bit of light holiday reading.

I read Blood and Iron several years ago and though my memories of it are vague, I do remember having enjoyed it. So it was with a certain amount of confidence that I picked up Ink and Steel, expecting good things. The story is set in Elizabethan London, but not as we know it. In this alternative history Queen Elizabeth’s reign is paralleled by the Faerie court, where the great Queen Mab rules concurrently to her mortal counterpart.

Each world benefits the other in a number of ways, and playwright Cristofer Marlowe uses the intricacies of this symbiotic relationship to write plays infused with magic that maintain Elizabeth’s sovereignty, working at the behest of the Prometheus Club. This club is a recurring conceit in Bear’s novels; a secret society of magicians, politicians and spies working together to influence the course of England’s history. But there are plenty of rivalries and sub-sets at work among the club members, and it is a betrayal from within their ranks that leads to Marlowe’s murder.

The Prometheans turn to William Shakespeare to take Marlowe’s place, an up-and-coming playwright who is struggling to reconcile his passion for theatre with the demands of a family life — not to mention his grief over Marlowe’s death. Meanwhile, Marlowe (or Kit as he’s generally known) awakens in Faerie to find himself the patient (or is it prisoner?) of Morgan le Fay and her son. He’s required to transfer his allegiances from the Queen of England to the Queen of Faerie if he’s to maintain what remains of his life, but his fondness for Shakespeare and his glimpses of the mortal life that still goes on in London leads him to intervene in affairs whenever he can.

As mentioned, any Elizabeth Bear book requires your full attention if you’re to understand what’s going on. The sheer amount of characters is mind-boggling, especially since they can be referred to by their first, last or nick names over the course of the story (in fact it took me a while to realize that Cristofer Marlowe was actually the same person as Kit Marley). Likewise, although the golden rule of writing is “show, don’t tell,” in some cases, a little telling can be necessary just to give the reader a solid grasp of what’s going on. Bear doesn’t bother with this; her writing is all show, no tell — and can be difficult to understand as a result.

But for those with time and patience, there are plenty of rewards. Bear clearly loves her subject matter, and fills the pages of her book with sly in-jokes and quotes from both Shakespeare and Marlowe. Filled with secret love letters, tragic death, assassination attempts, court intrigue, and supernatural occurrences, Bear’s gift is in mingling fact and fiction together in order to shape a story that is unique and yet familiar in its use of old fairytale patterns.

It’s no doubt a challenging book, but one that is perhaps more enjoyable the second time around, in which the clever foreshadowing, plot-twists and ornate prose can be better appreciated. The story is continued in Hell and Earth; in fact they’re more or less the same book that had to be split due to length. The cover art in particular is an inspired way of linking the two books: this one portrays Queen Elizabeth on her throne, whilst Hell and Earth has the Faerie Queen depicted in much the same way, making each woman’s importance to the narrative (and each other) abundantly clear.

Release date: July 1, 2008 | Series: PROMETHEAN AGE. On the heels of Hell and Earth… Kit Marley, 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…

Elizabeth Bear Promethean Age 1. Blood and Iron, 2. Whiskey and Water, 3. Ink and Steel, 4. Hell and Earth Elizabeth Bear Promethean Age 1. Blood and Iron, 2. Whiskey and Water, 3. Ink and Steel, 4. Hell and Earth Elizabeth Bear Promethean Age 1. Blood and Iron, 2. Whiskey and Water, 3. Ink and Steel, 4. Hell and Earth Elizabeth Bear Promethean Age 1. Blood and Iron, 2. Whiskey and Water, 3. Ink and Steel, 4. Hell and Earth


  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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