Sunday, August 30, 2009

Blood and Iron – Elizabeth Bear

Blood and Iron is the first book of Bear’s Promethean Age series. Until now, four books out of a dozen or so planned novels have been published. I can't find anything on a possible fifth installment at the moment. This massive series chronicles a conflict between the Fae and mages that has been going on since Elizabethan times. Bear claims the books will be independent reads but I decided to start at the beginning anyway. A while ago I read her excellent novel All the Windwracked Stars, the first in a trilogy book books based on Nordic mythology in a post apocalyptic setting. It was one of the best books I have read in 2008. Based on that experience and some of her short fiction my expectations were quite high. Blood and Iron is an interesting novel but it did not quite live up to those expectations.

The series is not published in chronological order. Blood and Iron is set in the autumn of 1997, partly in New York City. This is where we meet our main character, Elaine. She has given up that name hinks of herself as Seeker instead. Seeker is bound to one of the Fae courts and is tasked with finding humans, often of Fae ancestry to abduct back to the Fae realm. She is opposed in her work by the Prometheus Club. A group of human mages organized along the lines of a secret society, trying to rid the world of Fae influence. In our modern society they have almost succeeded. Iron, the bane of the Fae is just about everywhere. The Fae are not to be underestimated however.

After a successful mission during which Seeker managed to bind one of the wild Fae, she is told by the Queen that a Merlin walks the world again. The appearance of a Merlin heralds the coming of a new Dragon. A time of strife and warfare is on them but also a time of opportunity to the Fae. The Merlin’s power is terrible, it would strengthen the Fae enormously if they managed to win the Merlin for their cause. The Merlin is human however, and the human mages of the Prometheus Club, most notably the mage Matthew Szczegielniak (I have yet to figure out how to pronounce that name) are not going to give her up without a fight. And then there is the fact that the Merlin has some peculiar ideas on how to handle the magic a Merlin embodies as well. Things soon descend into a very complicated political game between the various Fae factions, the mages and a number of rogue characters thrown in the mix.

As this synopsis makes clear the author bases the story for a large part on Celtic mythology. One of the main concepts in the book is that of geas (or geis), as I understand it a curse that either obliges or prohibits someone to do something specific (okay, okay, it's a bit more complicated than that). It compels a great many characters to do certain things in certain ways or see them done, usually at high cost. Seeker is one of the characters who is less than free to do what she wants. She is bound to the Mebd, the Queen of the Daoine Sidhe and can simply be ordered to perform the kidnappings the Queen requires. Some carry a more subtle geas of course but the fact remains that a lot of the (Fae) characters spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get away with not doing something the really, really don't want to do, or the other way around. There's also a fair bit of guilt involved when they (almost inevitably) fail. The Fae do of course provide a rationale for not being guilty.

These are older rules and even the Mebd must abide by them – that in life one may be bound or bought, but in the end you go to judgement naked, clad only in what you are born with and what you have earned, lessened only by what you have sold or given away. That which is taken by force, for good or ill, goes unconsidered.

The Dragon Mist talking to Seeker – Chapter 2

I thought the author overused this particular device a bit. Some of the characters seem to think they have very few choices of their own. Guilt is a powerful emotion of course and something well worth exploring in a character but it turns into too much of a drama before the characters figure out how to use the wiggle room they have left. The opposition also seems to be a completely blind to the arguments of the other party. Most of the mages have lost at the hand of the Fae and it has made them willing to great violence in return. Reasonable is not a word any of the sides is familiar with.

Bear manages to put a very interesting twist on the Fae story. It’s been extensively used and overused in fantasy but I must admit her perspective is refreshing. The sense of the slowly fading Fae world is very strong in this book. You can tell they are near the breaking point that the opening of the book. I very much liked they way Bear weaves in all manner of modern accomplishments that limit the power of the Fae. One example of this is a reference to the golden spike, the joining of two railroads to create the first transcontinental connection in the US in 1869. In the view of the Fae a band of iron spanning a continent. There are a lot more of these of course but I thought this was the most striking example.

Apart from the interesting use of Celtic mythology, Blood and Iron is stylistically very well done. The concept of a war between the Fae and the mages certainly has potential beyond this first book. The plot however didn't really appeal to me. If you like Bear's writing and the subject she takes on here, this book will most likely be one of your favourites. I am not entirely convinced yet but I certainly liked it well enough to try the second Promethean novel Whiskey and Water.

Book Details
Title: Blood and Iron
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Roc
Pages: 431
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-451-46217-6
First published: 2006


  1. Good review.The book is on my neverending book list

  2. On my list too.. But I've read two other books of this author; Dust and Chill. They are the first two novels in the Jacob's Ladder Trilogy. Thrilling science fiction about an generation starship bij a very talented writer. Her style is so smooth! Looking forward to "Grail" the final installement.
    Elizabeth Bear deserves a bigger public, if you ask me( but who does..)
    I like your reviews a lot Val! Keep up the good work

  3. Thank you! I've been considering having a go at Jacob's Ladder but I think I'll finish the Edda of Burdens first.