Sunday, December 22, 2013

Book of Iron - Elizabeth Bear

One of the most exciting Fantasy trilogies published in the last few years is Elizabeth Bear's Eternal Sky trilogy. In fact, I am so impressed with Bear's attempt to show what epic fantasy could achieve if it lets go of the Tolkienesque heritage that still weighs heavy on the genre, that I am willing to make this statement before the third book appears. Steles of the Sky is scheduled for April and it is one of those must read books for 2014 for me.

To accompany the trilogy, Bear has written two novellas, both published by Subterranean. The first one, Bone and Jewel Creatures, was published in 2010. I missed it at the time and as usual with Subterranean novellas, it is almost impossible to get your hands on a new copy without paying an arm and a leg. I would settle for a digital copy only there appear to be geographical restrictions in that edition. In short, I haven't read it. Fortunately it isn't necessary to have read either the first novella, which I understand is set some 80 years later that Book of Iron, or the trilogy to enjoy it.

The story is set some four centuries after the events described in the trilogy. Technology has advanced to the level of the early twentieth century, with all sorts of modern technology making an appearance. Magic is not gone from the world though, and the sky still changes when one enters a realm where other gods are worshipped. The main character Bijou, works for the second prince of  Messaline. She is an artificer, animating dead bones and creating creature studded with jewels out of them. One day a delegation from a nation further north appears seeking the aid of the prince. It is the start of an adventure that will take Bijou and a select group of adventurers to the cursed city of Erem to keep a dangerous wizard from making a terrible mistake.

In a mere 124 pages Bear doesn't have the space to get into the details of this world but I do think she manages to work in enough to make it a fascinating glimpse into what the world introduced to me in Range of Ghosts grew into. The mix of modern technology and wizardry works surprisingly well. Bear creates the sense of a rapidly changing world where technology is pushing its boundaries ever further outward but where magic shows no signs of being replaced.

The story itself is mostly set in the otherworldly Erem. It's a location that is visited in the trilogy as well and it is a hellish place. Several of its suns kill people in minutes and the  creatures that have managed to make it their home are not the ones you'd want to meet face to face. The party has great trouble fending them off or forcing them to do their bidding. Something that is further complicated by the fact they know almost nothing about each other's abilities.

Book of Iron could easily have turned into a fairly straightforward adventure but Bear works in a lot of hints about the relationships between the characters that add a deeper layer to the text. There is mistrust in the story but also friendship, a sense of loneliness and regret but also hope and attraction. All of this is shrouded in just enough mystery to keep the reader trying to read between the lines. It's very cleverly written really. I'm fairly certain she is not done with Bijou yet, or at least she is leaving herself more than enough room to add to the story of this character. I guess I'm going to have to see about getting my hands on Bone and Jewel Creatures one of these days.

Book Details
Title: Book of Iron
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Pages: 124
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59606-474-4
First published: 2013

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