“One-Eyed Jack” Elizabeth Bear

I mentioned at the end of my post about Elizabeth Bear’s Hell and Earth that the next of the Promethean Age books was out – and in fact in between writing that post and it going live I bought One-Eyed Jack and started to read it. This book takes place after Blood and Iron (and possibly after Whiskey and Water, I’m not sure if this is what the common antagonist character did before showing up in Whiskey and Water or after (if there was an after for him, which is ambiguous)). It is more in the nature of a linked story in the same universe, rather than a sequel per se.

It’s set in Las Vegas (mostly), and the protagonists are not so much people as archetypes and personifications of places. Which doesn’t sound like it would work, but it really does. The titular character, One-Eyed Jack is the genius or avatar of Las Vegas along with his partner the Suicide King. And the story opens on the Hoover Dam, with the first skirmish in what the Los Angeles avatars hope will be a takeover of Las Vegas using the Dam as their bridgehead. It is vital for the water supply of LA after all, so is a point for them to establish their influence. Amongst the rest of the cast are the ghosts of a pair of late 19th Century folk heroes, a vampire who calls himself Tribute (but who you’ll recognise early on if you know any cultural icons from the 20th Century US), and a handful of pairs of spies/assassins who are archetypes from different TV shows. Of course the takeover attempt from LA isn’t all that’s going on – there are several other power struggles which are also coming to a head at this point, and over the course of the book the links between these become clear.

There was a certain amount of mental whiplash reading this so soon after reading Hell and Earth. All four of the other Promethean Age books are grounded in a mythos I know – so the interesting thing was seeing what Bear was doing with them and exploring her versions of these stories I already have a sort of shape for. This book flipped that on its head – here the anchor point for me were the elements of Bear’s Promethean Age I recognised, and the newer stuff was the mythos. I don’t think that would be the case for someone who lives in the US, or for someone who watches more fiction TV than I do. But it still works as a story, and as a cast of characters, for me – I know enough through cultural osmosis to have an idea who the people are. Which is a part of the point of the book – like me you might never’ve been to Vegas or to LA, but you’ll have enough of an idea of the cities to recognise the personifications as personifications. Like me, you might not’ve watched the various spy shows, but you’ll still recognise the character types and possibly even the specific shows referenced. I’m fairly confident the Englishman and the woman in the leather jumpsuit are from The Avengers, for instance, despite not having watched a single episode of that.

Names and the naming of things are once again important in this story in ways that range from the One-Eyed Jack using sympathetic magic to call up ghosts of his more famous namesakes, to the way the assassins are nameless for most of the story. Another common theme for the Promethean Age novels that shows up is the power of story with the characters at times trusting that if they “play to genre” they’ll survive something implausibly (the hero never dies in a spy story!), and at times deliberating flouting genre conventions in order to throw the antagonists off the scent.

One thing that has struck me as I’ve been writing this up & thinking about the book, is that the mental whiplash I mentioned above is almost a part of the point. The stories & characters in the other Promethean Age books are much more familiar to me, because I’m British – the Stratford Man duology are set in my cultural past with my cultural mythology playing a part. The other two (Blood and Iron, Whiskey and Water) are set in a part of the New World that’s full of immigrants from the Old World, whether recent or not. So the stories are the stories from “home”, and some – like Arthur, like the Fae – are a part of my cultural heritage and have continuity with the Stratford Man stories. Of course there’s other elements mixed in – not all the immigrants who come to New York and the rest of the North-East US are European after all and they change to fit their new context as stories always do. And then we come to this book – it’s set in the West and the people who came here came from the East coast, it’s one step more removed from Europe. And the stories they build their identities on are the stories of the Wild West – of Cowboys and Indians, of brave pioneers, of lawless towns and railroads bringing civilisation, of the American Dream and the gold rush. And into that mix is dropped Hollywood glamour, sinful Vegas – not the staid old-fashioned elements of Faerie courts. With a health dollop of Cold War paranoia. Basically it’s more deeply rooted in US culture, so it’s not surprising I recognise things more from an outside perspective, I am an outsider to it.

A good book, that kept me thinking about it after I finished reading it.

“Labyrinth” Kat Richardson

“Labyrinth” is book 5 of Kat Richardson’s Greywalker series, and I read it a couple of months ago now. I nearly decided not to write a blog post about it as it had been so long since I read it – this summer has been pretty hectic & I’ve been generating posts to write quicker than I can write them! (Which is a nice problem to have 🙂 ). But I do want to make a few remarks for my own benefit even if I’m not sure how interesting or coherent they’ll be for anyone else. And it’s incredibly hard to say anything without spoilers for the previous books.

I thought when I started the series that these would be a never ending series of PI thrillers. That book 1 would be the origin story where Harper Blaine gets her ability to see and interact with the supernatural and then there’d be a bad-guy-of-the-book or mystery-of-the-book for each succeeding instalment. Instead it’s become clear that there’s an overarching story here, and I found out (after I read this book but before I wrote about it) that the ninth and final book has been published this summer. So that’s reshaped how I think about the series a bit, and I think probably gives them more re-read value (and I’m annoyed now that I missed out on book 3 as it’s more like missing a chapter of a novel rather than just an episode). I think I’ll stick to using the library for now – but I should put them on the list to be bought & revisited later.

Plot wise, Harper is back on home ground here and we revisit some of the people and plot threads from book 1 but now Harper knows so much more than she did. It’s become clear that what happened to Harper wasn’t an accident, and that a lot of the people that seemed coincidentally linked to her in the first story actually had agendas of their own. Harper is also being changed by her increasingly deep connection to the Grey, and not in good ways. Over the last 4 books she’s gradually opened up and made more friends & connections* and now the Grey is starting to take some of that away. I don’t think this is going to turn out to be a tragedy overall, the tone so far hasn’t felt like the sort of story where Harper could become evil and take over the world muahahahaha. But with 4 books left there’s definitely time for these disturbing seeds to grow and it to get darker before pulling back at the end.

*Amusing that her lack of connection to the world around her was something I was concerned was a bad sign for the series in book 1. Nope, it was a plot point.

On a different note, after I read book 4 I wondered if the Egyptian vampires were a real legend – the author’s note in this book says that they are not. I’m impressed that Richardson has made her creation feel so truthy – there wasn’t anything that jumped out and made me think that couldn’t be an Egyptian legend.

Hopefully the library has book 6! 🙂

“Hell and Earth” Elizabeth Bear

Hell and Earth is the second half of the story begun in Ink and Steel (post). I have unfortunately left this too long between reading and writing up (3 weeks? maybe more) so this will be briefer notes than originally intended.

This pair of books are very much two halves of a larger story – although there’s some degree of resolution at the end of Ink and Steel (and it’s not a cliff hanger), most of the plotlines don’t come to fruition until this book. But this half of the story feels more like Kit Marlowe’s story (where the first half was more Will Shakespeare’s or perhaps more balanced between the two). Over the course of Ink and Steel Bear set up her world where the land of mortals (England as ruled by Elizabeth I) is linked to the court of the Daoine Sidhe (as ruled by the Mebd). Now Elizabeth is dying, as all mortals inevitably must, which threatens the Fae due to this linkage as well as potentially plunging the mortal world into the chaos of a succession crisis. But that’s almost the B-plot, the main thrust of the story is Kit discovering what was done to him in his youth that’s left him with PTSD and symbols carved into his flesh. It wasn’t just petty sadism on the part of his tormentor, but is another way in which Kit is a tool that has been shaped to fit a long term plan to alter the stories that shape the world.

Mortality is a thread that runs through the whole book – it even opens with the discovery of Edmund Spenser dead in his home. But it’s not just mortality that keeps cropping up it’s also the aftermath and the grieving, and how the people left behind cope. Not just Elizabeth and whether & how the country and the Fae are going to survive the turmoil of her passing away. But also on a more intimate level – Will is dying, slowly but surely, as all mortals will. But Kit is not entirely mortal any more and beginning to live with the realisation that all that he loved in the mortal realm will inevitably fade away.

As with Ink and Steel (and Bear’s books in general) one of the things I like best about this world she has created is the sense of reality, even tho the plot and premise are fantastical. The characters react plausibly to the situation(s) they’re in, I have a strong sense of personality for them all. Even if I might not predict what’s going to happen next it doesn’t feel forced, rather grows organically out of the characters & their interactions.

I wish I’d either taken a few notes or written this up sooner, as I’m sure I had more to say. It’s a series that continues to feel like it would reward paying close attention and taking notes, whilst still being a lot of fun to read on a surface level. There’s another book in the series just recently come out, which I’ve not picked up a copy of yet – I need to rectify this soon! 🙂

“Crown of Renewal” Elizabeth Moon

Crown of Renewal is the fifth & final book in Elizabeth Moon’s Paladin’s Legacy series and so, as she says in her Author’s Note at the beginning, it’s really not an entry point if you haven’t read at least the four other books in this series (and preferably the other 5 in this world). I’ve got them all, and I’ve been looking forward to this instalment in the series since I read the fourth one last autumn (post). And as with that one I’ve read this through at a gallop (not quite in one sitting this time but only because I had other things to do). It’s a satisfying conclusion to this series, and also ties up some of the loose ends from the earlier two series.

To recap a little – these books are secondary world epic fantasy, set in a universe that owes a debt to the Tolkein-esque & D&D flavours of fantasy. There are elves, there are gnomes, there are dragons, there are paladins, and so on. But Moon has taken these archetypes and made them into something her own. I particularly like her gnomes – these are humanoid and live in stone & work with it. And they have a society based around a very strict Law. Moon has managed to make them feel very alien, and very much their own thing. The first series set in this world was the Deed of Paksenarrion, which followed the life of Paksenarrion from her early life as a sheep farmer’s daughter who signs up with a mercenary company, through to her becoming a Paladin of Gird. The next series was a duology set much earlier in this world’s history – about the human life of Gird before he became a sort of demi-god. This current five book series starts not long after the end of the Deed of Paksenarrion, and deals with the events that Paks set in motion – nothing is without consequences after all. Another thread of the story is about why there are such differences between Gird’s teachings and life as we see them in the duology about him, and in the “now” of Paksenarrion’s time. It’s not just a case of chinese whispers across the centuries, although there’s some of that too.

Moon’s antagonists tend to be less nuanced than her other characters – they are generally flat out evil. In some ways this is a weakness in her writing, but I also feel that she does it deliberately as part of portraying a comforting faith in humanity. Her non-antagonist characters (in particular the secondary characters) can be mistaken, misguided, irritating, wrong, and do bad things. But that doesn’t mean they’re bad people – where you step across the line is when you know something is wrong and then do it anyway. These books have a fairly black & white morality and a Good vs Evil struggle, but you don’t have to be perfect to be on the side of light you just have to be doing your best. Which is a comforting way of looking at the world. Even Moon’s paladins aren’t avatars of perfection, they have flaws and make missteps.

This is still one of my favourite worlds to read books in 🙂 It’s a shame this book means no more for a while (if ever) but it was good to get another 5 books series after I’d thought the story was over.

“Ink and Steel” Elizabeth Bear

Ink and Steel is the third book in Elizabeth Bear’s Promethean Age series. It’s the first part of a tightly linked duology set in Elizabethan England, with Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare as our view point characters. It opens with Marlowe’s death, but given his presence as a character in Whiskey and Water (set some 400 years later) it comes as no surprise that this isn’t the last we’ve seen of him. He’s “rescued” by one of the Queens of Faerie – Morgan – and while he is still alive, he can’t leave Faerie for long, so as far as the world of the living goes he might as well be dead. But Marlowe has no desire to give up his ties to the world just yet.

The Shakespeare strand of the story begins with him still in shock from the news of his friend’s murder, and learning that Marlowe had been part of a secret society – the Prometheus Club – sworn to protect England and her Queen. Marlowe’s plays had been a part of their protections, there was a magic in them to nudge events along in the right way. And now William Shakespeare is being asked to step into that role, and to start moving in a world of politics and intrigue. Made even more difficult by the fact that Marlowe’s murder implies a traitor within the Prometheus Club.

The plot then follows both of them as they try to fit into their new roles & worlds – separately and together. Kit was always supposed to survive (not that he knows it at first) but he wasn’t supposed to end up bound to a Faerie Queen, and a lot of his story is about him figuring out why Morgan “rescued” him and what she wants with him. And that’s the plot thread that comes to a resolution to provide a climax to this book – Shakespeare’s dealing with the aftermath of Marlowe’s murder out in the human world is mostly not tied up.

I like Bear’s Shakespeare. I like the other characters too, but having been learning a bit more about the historical character recently it was neat to see how she weaves her imaginings in with the known facts. Particularly good was the way that Shakespeare’s relationship with his wife is fleshed out – Anne is a character as well, and even though you always see her through Shakespeare’s eyes you get a feel for the woman’s character. And also for the relationship between the two in all its complexity. Bear makes one reason that Shakespeare spends so much time in London and not in Stratford with Anne a reason of love – in this story Anne nearly died when giving birth to the twins, and so Will doesn’t want to risk getting her pregnant again. Of course in the 16th Century there aren’t contraceptives or abortions, the only way to avoid children is to not have sex. He stays away so that he won’t give into temptation, and she knows this and hates it (and its necessity) too. But he also stays away because he’s got a good life in London, and because the theatre is as important to him as his family.

The setting feels realistic, rather than modern people slapped down in “ye olden days”. The characters don’t have modern attitudes, even the sympathetic ones say or do things that would feel out of place now but just right in context. Particularly attitudes towards women – who are mostly secondary characters in the story (rather than viewpoint characters) but are a lot more central to events than the men whose eyes we see through really appreciate. Attitudes to sexuality are also full of things that are seen as hopelessly bigoted today. Part of Shakespeare’s character arc during the book has him discovering that his prejudices about women, and about non-hetrosexuals, aren’t as founded in reality as he might think. It’s not just attitudes that evoke the people of a different era – the dialogue is Elizabethan-lite. It’s not an accurate representation of how people would’ve spoken at the time, but it’s full of little turns of phrase that evoke the era. For example: “Richard, you come hand in hand with fortune tonight. You did perchance bring wine?”. And Shakespeare’s lines are full of wordplay and being clever with words, not in an obtrusive way but just enough to make you believe he’s the man who wrote the plays.

In terms of the overall series this and its sequel are the other half of the backstory for the events of Whiskey and Water – this is about Kit Marlowe and Faerie and Hell. It’s also something of an origin story for the Prometheans, who are not (all) the antagonists in this book. In Elizabethan England they are not just one society, they’ve split into two with different interpretations of their goal to protect the realm & Queen. And different methods they’re willing to use. I think the Prometheans of the 20th Century novels grow out of the Prometheans that Shakespeare is part of, not the ones he’s working against. Although I’m not entirely sure about that. But that means that the organisation that’s on the antagonist side in books 1 & 2 is on the protagonist side in books 3 & 4. And I like the way that this story is not the Good Guys and the Bad Guys, instead it’s more complicated and more of a matter of perspective.

As well as sacrifice and choices which run as themes through the whole series this book also has a lot of time being out of joint which feels significant. A lot of the communication is asynchronous – by letters only sporadically delivered/collected. And time runs differently in Faerie, so Kit and Will can never be quite sure how long has passed for the other one. I’m not sure what the deeper significance is, but it definitely feels like something I’m intended to notice.

This book is a return to the heights of Blood & Iron for me – a combination of my favourite historical era and the Fair Folk.

“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.

“Chronicles of the Black Company” Glen Cook

Chronicles of the Black Company is an omnibus edition of the first three novels in the Black Company series. I’ve seen these books recommended several times over the last few years and I’ve finally got round to reading them. This book is a secondary world fantasy, of a fairly medieval flavour, where magic exists. Our protagonist is Croaker, the medic and records keeper for the Black Company – a band of mercenaries that have existed for the last few hundred years. As we start the first book they are contracted to protect the ruler of and enforce law and order on a city. This rather less than satisfactory contract is coming to a close and they take on a new contract in a certain amount of haste – this turns out to be working for the Lady, as part of her army putting down a rebellion in her lands in the north.

The Lady is … not nice. In fact she’s on the evil side of the good/evil divide. Once long ago she, her husband (the Dominator) and their chosen/magically bound servants (the Taken) were imprisoned and buried by the forces of the White Rose. The Lady and the Taken were released (some time ago when the story starts) and now rule almost uncontested over the north. They’re not immortal, in that they can die if you stick a sword or an arrow in them, but they aren’t going to die of old age. The only “good” thing about their release, is that the Dominator is still bound … And this is who the Black Company has contracted with.

There is, of course, a prophecy. The White Rose will be reborn, and when the comet returns (as it does every 29 years) fortune will favour her, and presumably she can defeat the Lady and the Taken again. This is what the rebellion is all about – the rebels don’t know who or where the reborn White Rose is, but it’s the year of the comet and they are determined to find her and overthrow the Lady. But things aren’t that simple, this is not that sort of story.

This is a story where everything is shades of grey, the question is just how grey they are. The Dominator and the White Rose do represent the two ends of the spectrum – he’s pretty close to black, she’s pretty close to white. But for the people on the ground – Croaker and the rest of the Black Company, the inhabitants of the land they’re in, the rebels, even the Lady and the Taken – nothing’s black and white. The rebels are, frankly, as bad as the regime they’re fighting against – war’s a dirty business, civil war particularly so. It’s not really a war of pitched battles, either – skirmishes and ambushes and sieges instead. With all the messiness of civilians getting caught up in it too. The Black Company’s honour and pride is bound up in honouring their contract, and so having taken service with the Lady they must fight for her (tho later in these three books that does change). And the Lady herself isn’t wholly evil – through Croaker’s fascination with her we see glimpses of humanity, increasing through the three books. It’s never quite clear, however, how much of that is her manipulating him (and through him the others). She’s also not as bad as the Dominator – her marriage was not a love match, and as well as ruling the north and fighting the rebels she is also making sure that he doesn’t escape his bindings.

Croaker and the others aren’t particularly saint like, either. There are the occasional offhand references by Croaker to the Company troops being let off the leash for a bit of looting, pillaging and raping every now and then when they win a victory. The officers (like Croaker) will step in when it goes too far – they’re an honourable Company – but there’s a certain matter of factness about the brutalities of war. And they do work for the Lady for rather a long time – and it’s self-preservation that drives them over to the other side in the end. Most of the mercenaries probably have a past they’re escaping. We never find out what this is, for any of them, not even Croaker. The slate is wiped clean when you join. Pretty much everyone uses a nickname not their real name. Of course some of this is because the magic of this world has a concept of one’s true name carrying power, but that’s not the whole story.

The quote on the back of the edition I read is from Steven Erikson (who wrote the Malazan books) and he says (among other stuff) “[it’s] like reading Vietnam War fiction on peyote”. And it does feel very much like modern warfare – this is not a book about a glorious medievaloid battle of Good vs. Evil. This is a mundane and grubby war, where you hope you’re not on the wrong side even though you know you probably are. Where most of the people involved are doing their job – some of that job involves killing people, most of it is tedious and there are occasional moments of sheer terror. It’s epic fantasy as seen from the point of view of mid-ranking characters – not in charge, but a step above pawns. But it’s still an optimistic trilogy overall – there’s no happily-ever-after with Good reigning transcendent (and anyway, there are more books so the story isn’t over) but the arc is a positive arc. And even if our characters weren’t princes and lords they still had agency and could make a difference when it mattered enough.

There were other things I wanted to talk about (like how much I liked the various supporting characters) but I think I’ll wrap up here coz this post is long enough. I’m glad I finally got round to reading this – it was as good as I’d heard it was 🙂

“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.

“Vanished” Kat Richardson

Vanished is the fourth book in Kat Richardson’s Greywalker series – I’m getting these out of the library so sadly I skipped over book 3 because the library don’t have it. I don’t think this’ll be a long post – I’m not sure how much I can say about this book while staying spoiler free. When I started reading the series I thought they were going to be very episodic monster-of-the-week stuff, but this one (and perhaps the last one too, I don’t know) is much more concerned with series arc. And my initial criticism of the protagonist, Harper Blaine, feeling in the first book like she came out of nowhere is even more off base than I thought with the last book! Here we get to meet some of her family, and other figures from her past, and we find out both why she’s kinda bad at interpersonal relationships and something about why she’s a Greywalker.

I like that Richardson is pulling in things other than the typical urban fantasy critters. The main focus is the ghosts rather than the vampires, and there are other beings from other mythologies – notably a golem, and a statue of Sekhmet which the goddess speaks through at least once. You can probably guess I was pleased to read that bit, I do have a fondness for Sekhmet – and I think Richardson got the right feel for a goddess who is both a protective deity and a personification of rage. She also works in some Ancient Egyptian vampires – not sure here if she took some known piece of Egyptian mythology and reworked it or if it was an invention of her own. What I liked was that they were both vampires and yet a bit different – having cultural and mythological variety in even the creatures that are well worn tropes of urban fantasy makes the whole world feel more fleshed out and solid.

Time to see if the library has book 5, I think 🙂

“Mage’s Blood” David Hair

I’ve read a lot of fiction of varying qualities, and generally so long as it’s fun or interesting in some way I’ll overlook a lot of flaws. Sadly sometimes a work has a flaw that keeps popping up in your face and waving its arms around, shouting “Hey, remember me? Don’t you find me annoying? Yoooooohooooo! Over here!”. Mage’s Blood had one of those, and despite feeling that there was something there to appreciate in the story I couldn’t get past the clunky world building.

Mage’s Blood is technically a secondary world fantasy – set in a world that’s not our own, rather than our own world with some fantastical element added. Technically. But it’s full of things like these:

“Have you seen Ramon?”
“Nope. I imagine the Silacian sneak-thief is probably running his village familioso by now.”

I guess Silacian == Sicilian where the mafia come from, get it, get it, get it?? We are hit over the head with this several times, and Ramon even sprinkles Italian words & phrases through his speech … Or how about this:

The Rimoni men were clad in white shirts and black leggings; their hands rested on their knife hilts. The women, wrapped in shawls, were scowling in suspicion. […] the head of the gypsies, Mercellus di Regia,[…]

Well, what do you know, the Rimoni are gypsies, amazing what you can do with a few vowel shifts and a great big helping of stereotypes, isn’t it? The Rimoni also do double duty as the Romans – having had a large empire around a thousand years ago in this world’s past. And so the Rimoni also scatter Italian through their speech.

We’re also at the time of some great wars being fought at intervals between two continents – from the perspective of the cultures mentioned above (plus others on that continent) these are the … wait for it … Crusades. And how about the cultures on the other continent I hear you ask? Would it surprise you to find out that the people there look Arabic or Indian? And one group have a monotheistic religion, greet each other with the phrase “Sal’Ahm” and have a concept of holy war called “shihad” which they have declared against the crusaders – we’ve found our Muslims, I think. And another group wear sarees, have many gods (including Gann, sometimes referred to as Gann-Elephant in case we don’t figure out it’s Ganesha), and the author even says thanks in the acknowledgements to someone for her help with Bengali wedding rituals – I guess these are Bengali Hindus then!

Some stuff was original, but there was enough of this clumsy “oh if I just change the letters a bit no-one will notice” world building, and it was reiterated often enough, to yank me back out of the story over and over again. I wish he’d taken the time to come up with some less obvious equivalences and had the setting feel less like he’d picked a bunch of stereotyped ingredients from our world and mixed them in with his new stuff.

And it’s a shame, to be honest. There were things about the plot and characters that I did enjoy. For instance there’s a plot line with a young woman in an arranged marriage to an immortal mage – she was promised to someone else, but the mage offered unbelievable riches to her family. And her young lover follows to rescue her, and you just know it’s all going to end in tragedy of an almost Shakespearean sort especially as you see (and Hair makes you believe in) the growing affection between her and her husband. And I almost want to know what happens next, but I can’t see myself ever reading the rest of this planned quartet of books.

I’d assumed it was a debut novel, and perhaps one that should’ve been trunked and another one written using the lessons learnt writing this one. But I looked him up, and it seems this is not his first published work – he has a couple of series of YA fantasy novels set in our world. Which makes sense given what I think worked and what I think didn’t work about the book – the secondary world setting is one of the things he hasn’t done before. And sadly the stuff that worked just couldn’t keep me engrossed enough to ignore the clunkyness.