“Whiskey and Water” Elizabeth Bear

Whiskey and Water is the second half of the duology started with Blood and Iron (post). It is set 7 years later and in many ways deals with the unfinished business from and consequences of the end of the first book. But where Elaine and the stories of the Fae & Merlin were the centre of the last book, in this one it’s Matthew Magus and the stories of Hell & the Devil in his many forms that take centre stage. I finished reading this a while ago but I’ve been putting off talking about it because while I know what happened on a surface level I have a tantalising feeling of not quite getting it on a deeper level. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the book, I just have a sense of something just outside my grasp.

The plot proper kicks off with the murder of a girl in New York – by a Fae. Matthew Magus is no longer what he was, he was damaged by his part in the end of the Faerie War and his magic isn’t under his control. But he still feels a duty to protect Manhattan, even tho he can’t quite do it, and he still feels guilty that he couldn’t prevent the murder (like he maybe once would’ve). And so he takes the girl’s friends under his wing to help them find out who and why.

There are also subplots revolving around the losses of the war. Murchaud, a Prince of Hell, died in that war and Jane Andraste bears a responsibility for that death as he was only there as part of her alliance with Hell. Murchaud is a gaping wound round which the story bends – he’s Morgan le Fay’s son, he’s Elaine Queen of the Daoine Sidhe’s father, he was Kit Marlowe’s lover. And Kit wants revenge on Jane Andraste for his death so he leaves Hell where he was living with Murchaud to challenge her to a duel. And so many of the other key players in the story have reason to smooth his path to that – not just those I mentioned already, but also Lucifer Morningstar (one of the several Devils) and Matthew. Matthew has his own issues with Jane – his whole life has been twisted into one of loss by Jane and the Prometheans’ desire for war against Faerie.

Whiskey is the centre of another subplot. He was given Elaine’s soul and name as a part of her becoming Fae enough to be Queen. And so he has a conscience and he isn’t doing what needs to be done as the foremost of the water Fae. The Bunyip comes to challenge him because Whiskey is weak from his refusal to kill. Which means that the Bunyip gets drawn into the conflict in alliance with Jane Andraste.

Loss is one of the themes running through the book. Not just Matthew’s losses, Kit’s losses, Elaine’s losses etc: Hell itself is a loss of God’s presence, and Lucifer suffers from what he sees as God’s refusal to forgive him and the loss of God’s love. The end of that particular thread took me a little by surprise. I don’t think it really came out of nowhere, I think I just missed the things that should’ve clued me in. Forgiveness, true forgiveness, is another theme. And I think pride too – several characters are brought down, or nearly so, by their own pride or the pride of others.

This book doesn’t work for me quite as well as Blood and Iron does, but it’s still good. And perhaps if I read it again I might get it next time.

“Blood and Iron” Elizabeth Bear

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.

“Carnival” Elizabeth Bear

Carnival is a standalone science fiction novel by Elizabeth Bear, and the first of her books that I bought – also the only one I’ve ever seen in a bookshop over here. The several books I now have of hers seem to fall into groups which represent her take on a particular sub-genre – to me this one is Bear’s take on the eco/feminist science fiction story. By that I mean the sort of thing that Sherri S. Tepper writes. But as with the others of Bear’s books that I’ve read this takes the familiar tropes of that sub-genre and does something different with them.

Carnival is set in a future where Old Earth is still the political leader of several colony planets. The population of Earth is much reduced – the majority have been Assessed by the Governors. This is explained later in the book, the Governors are AI constructed by a group who felt humans were damaging the Earth too much so the best thing to do is to kill off most of them, then enforce strict controls on population and other ecologically damaging practices. The Governors use the ubiquitous nanotechnology to kill those they Assess as needing to die – starting in the first instance with all the white people (which included the creators of the Governors, something they would definitely have approved of). It’s an End of the World as We Know It catastrophe caused on purpose by a small group of extremists. After the first wave of Assessments several off-world colonies are founded, then the Governors bring the remaining population down to an “appropriate” number. Two of the protagonists are from Old Earth, on a diplomatic mission to one of the colonies.

Said colony is called New Amazonia – it’s the sort of society I have the impression Tepper would approve of. It’s completely run by women, who go armed and have a dueling culture. Men are studs, and second class citizens, unless they’re gay (“gentle”) in which case they might get a bit more education and rights but it’s not like they’re ever going to be on a par with a woman is it? New Amazonia has something Old Earth wants – a clean & limitless power source. Possessing that might make the Governors back off a bit on the population limits. And a third protagonist is the New Amazonian counterpart to the two Old Earth diplomats.

And there’s a third culture involved here too – this one totally alien. Kii’s species once lived on what is now New Amazonia, and there are several interludes from Kii’s point of view. At first Kii feels almost superfluous, but as the book goes on you find out why this is an essential thread of the narrative. And Kii too is a diplomat of sorts – Kii is explorer-caste “And things that are new are things that Kii’s caste is for”, who else would be observing the humans and maybe interacting with them?

One of the things I like about this book is that everyone (including the secondary characters) is the protagonist of their own story. The ones we follow are Michaelangelo & Vincent from Old Earth, Lesa from New Amazonia and Kii, but everyone has their own agenda and no-one is as simple as the mask they present to the world. And everyone is masking something. The conflict in the story comes from the clash between everyone’s goals, rather than a Good v. Bad struggle, even if some of the goals are more sympathetic to me than others. And people that we thought were on different sides aren’t, and people who seem on the same side might not be. Allegiances shift (or are revealed) several times during the story but it always feels like it grows out of who the characters are and what they want.

Something Bear does very deftly is keep each culture feeling both alien to us and yet still sympathetic. I think part of how she does this is to have the things that our current point of view character Others be things that are part of our culture, and the things that they just accept as the obvious axioms of existence be things that we look at in bemusement. So for instance, there’s a bit where one of the Old Earth men is observing in horror that Lesa has a pet, how could she? An example from the flip side of it is Lesa having a contemplative moment about how it’s not like you could expect a hormonal man to really cope with the pressure of government/civilisation, they’re just not biologically set up for it. And very much all the cultures on show have their own flaws. Vincent’s is from yet another culture, and it’s presented as having been almost an idyllic childhood, but I’m not really sure I believe that (and I don’t think Bear meant one to take it at face value).

There’s a lot of other stuff I could talk about too. Communication is definitely a key theme – all three of the human protagonists are very good with the unspoken sides of communication, Kii is in a First Contact situation (kinda). Which links in with the cultures stuff I just talked about – your basic axioms of society affect how you deal with people and the assumptions you make, and how you communicate. Sacrifice is another theme (often is in Bear’s stories, to get what you want you have to pay a high price and you have to decide if that price is worth it). This story also has something going on about choosing prices for other people – the very existence of Governors is a prime example of this. A few people chose that price on behalf of the whole world, and this was not a good and noble thing despite what they might’ve thought when they did it. And this ties in unsettlingly into the interactions with Kii towards the end of the book, ends and means again and I’m not quite comfortable with the choices made on behalf of Kii even if maybe there wasn’t anything else they could do, and maybe Kii was OK with it afterwards.

Pleasingly after the Banks I’ve been reading there’s a hopeful ending. It feels like maybe, just maybe, things will get better. The net change over the course of the story feels like a positive one.