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.