Blood and Iron was, I think, the second Elizabeth Bear book I ever read and it’s the one that made me a fan. This and its companion volumes (there are four in the series so far) are Bear’s take on the urban fairies/elves and urban fantasy sub genres. This one and Whiskey and Water are set in the modern day and the other duology (Ink and Steel & Hell and Earth) are set in Shakespeare’s England (with Shakespeare as a character). The basic premise is “what if the Fair Folk of myth and legend were real?”. It’s not the cosy imaginings of Mercedes Lackey’s urban elves books (which I do like too) instead it’s more akin to the old ballads and the Celtic mythology. The Tam Lin story is one of the stories that binds this book together, along with the story of Arthur.
There are three viewpoint characters – Elaine Andraste, Matthew Szczegielniak and Keith MacNeill. The other two are important, but Elaine is the pivot around which the story turns. She is a changeling, part fae and stolen away from her mortal life some years ago by the Daoine Sidhe. Her name was used to bind her to the service of the Mebd, Queen of the Daoine Sidhe, she is now the Seeker of the Daoine Sidhe and at the beginning of the book she has done her best to subsume her sense of self into her office. She never thinks of herself as Elaine, instead she is Seeker. To some degree the book is about her coming to terms with who she is, who she was and what her heritage is – both from her Fae ancestry and the surprises in her human ancestry.
When the book opens the world is beginning to go through another iteration of a cyclical story. The Dragon Prince has been chosen. The Merlin has been born, but not come into true power yet. And the Mebd sends the Seeker off to find and bind the Merlin – like Nimue did before her. We know the story best as the story of Arthur: at times of need the Dragon Prince arises and fights back against the threatened conquerors aided by the power of the Merlin. But the Dragon requires a price for this – the Dragon Prince must spill the blood of innocents and if he doesn’t, then he will fail. And it’s also told that he will be betrayed by someone close to him. Bear works various historical figures into this narrative as past Dragon Princes so the cycle is repeating roughly once in 500 years. I particularly liked the inclusion of Harold Godwinson as a Dragon Prince, betrayed by his brother and refusing to pay the Dragon’s price so lost to William the Bastard in the end.
The Seeker and Keith MacNeill are linked by the past – Keith is the father of her child, and the man who gave her name to the Mebd so she could be bound. The first of these resonates with the Tam Lin story – Janet has a claim to Tam because he is the father of her child, and that’s important for why she can win him back from the tithe to Hell. And the second link is important thematically within this story. He doesn’t betray her to the Mebd out of hate, but out of love. He’s a werewolf and lives much longer than a normal mortal – but if Elaine is bound to the Fae then he won’t have to watch her grow old and die. But even tho his intentions were good, she still feels it as betrayal. And choices are important in this story – the choices you make for yourself, the choices you make for others. And there’s a constant theme of that which you give freely or choose to do yourself being more important than the same actions when coerced.
Matthew is actually the viewpoint in which we start the book – he’s not Fae at all, he’s a mortal magic user and a member of the Prometheus Club. The Prometheans exist to protect humanity against the Fae. They try to stop them stealing people and are gearing up for an invasion and final binding of Faerie to complete the job started by the iron of the railways. Matthew’s beloved older brother is a mortal who was taken to dance for the Faerie court, and returned when he could dance no more – many years older and crippled. Revenge for this, and wanting to ensure it happens to no-one else, are what drives Matthew and why he is one of the Prometheans. He works closely with a senior Promethean, Jane Andraste, mother of Elaine. And he sees them as sharing the same motivations, although over the course of the story it becomes clear that it’s not as simple as that.
This is a very dense book (in a good way) – I’ve given, I think, some idea of some of the intertwining plotlines without giving away too much. But there’s more I’ve not mentioned – like the tithe to Hell, which you’d expect from the Tam Lin story. And Morgan le Fay and Arthur are both characters in the book. And there’s not just the Daoine Sidhe, but the Unseelie Sidhe as well ruled by their own Queen and with their own desire to bind the Merlin. One of the things I like about the book is the sense of complexity and a fully fleshed out world – there’s more going on than just what we see and even if what we see is of great importance that doesn’t mean that the other things aren’t also of great importance too. But it’s not the sort of complexity that makes me feel like it’s a game of Jenga – where if I pull out a piece to examine it too closely it’ll all fall to pieces. (Moffat era Doctor Who is a bit like that, for all that I enjoy it I do feel I need to be careful not to look too closely.) Blood and Iron is the sort of complex that almost makes me want to go through it taking notes to see how it all fits together. For instance in a conversation about the Tam Lin ballad one character says about something “it says it twice so it must be important”. And the line in question (Tam Lin being the father of Janet’s child) is important to the story, but there’s more than that. I’d noticed that “the rules are different for the ones who were gods” had come up a couple of times by then (and there’s a pay-off to that later in the book). So what else is there that’s said twice that I’ve missed? And I’m sure there’s plenty of passing “offhand” references in this book that will turn out to have pay-offs in one of the other books.
The choices people make is, I think, the thematic thread that connects the whole story together. For instance, a lot of the book revolves around the price one is willing to pay to get one’s goals. And about choosing your goals carefully. There’s a lot I could write about that side of it, but the thing that I wanted to talk about is the emphasis on stories. This is a world where the stories we tell shape the world itself. Arthur didn’t exist, and yet there he is asleep on his bier waiting for his foretold return. His story has been told so many times that he does exist now. You might wonder how come Hell exists in this world where the celtic mythology is true, but again that’s because of the stories – the rise of Christianity created Hell (and Heaven) and now they do exist. And you could see that as being fatalistic – if you find you’re caught up in a story then you know how it’s going to play out. And you could see that as absolving you from the need to choose, but that would be a choice in itself. Because the thing is – if the stories we tell are what shapes the world, then you can choose to tell the story differently. But like everything that will come with a price, and are you willing to pay it?
This is one of my favourite books, and definitely as good second time through when I knew roughly where it was going. I really should sit down one day and go through more slowly taking notes.