“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! 🙂

“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.

“Life After Life” Kate Atkinson

“Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson is an astonishingly hard to categorise book. Part historical fiction, part alternate history, part historical fantasy. And probably properly classified as “literary fiction”. We follow the life of Ursula Todd, born on 11th February 1910 to a well-to-do middle class English family as she lives her life over & over again. Every time she dies she starts all over again, and each time things go a little differently. Atkinson tells the story through a series of vignettes of the key events in each life. It’s very much a book where the journey is the point rather than the destination, and the structure of it reinforces that. We loop back over & over to the snow of February 1910 where each time the same(ish) scene is told differently. At the end of each life the refrain is “Darkness fell” (or words to that effect).

At first each life lasts a little longer than the previous one as Ursula avoids the pitfalls of early childhood. Just as I was starting to wonder if Ursula could remember anything from life to life Atkinson started to make it clear that there was some leakage – Ursula would have a sense of deja vu or a sense of dread. Later the memories that carry from life to life are more complete & there’s a sense that Ursula can choose how things are going to go this time round. There’s also the way that Ursula chooses more adult solutions to problems in later lives – at first to successfully get past a death from influenza in 1918 she can only resort to pushing Bridget down the stairs when the sense of dread hits her. In a later go round she engineers a falling out between Bridget & her fiancé which is a much more subtle way of preventing the trip to London (and gets Ursula into a lot less trouble).

The book doesn’t end where I thought it would – neither way I thought it would end, in fact. At first I’d thought that perhaps we’d see her live longer & longer – getting past the knot of deaths of influenza in 1918, and through the Second World War (another knot of deaths). But the life where we see her make it to 1967 & retirement isn’t the end. Another ending that wasn’t the way it ended was when we looped back to the very first vignette in the book – which isn’t Ursula’s birth, it’s 20 year old Ursula assassinating Hitler. It’s the classic time travel theme – prevent the Second World War by killing Hitler. And we do loop back to that, and it’s clear that Ursula is doing this knowing the consequences of Hitler’s rule of Germany. Interestingly, it’s not precisely the same scene that opened the book, some of the details are different. So we’re not seeing all the lives that Ursula lives, just key ones to give a flavour of the possibilities (just like each life we only see the key moments). But this is not where the book ends, either.

Which left me feeling a bit like I’d missed something with how the book did end. One of the phrases running through the book is “Practice makes perfect”, often said by Ursula’s mother. And there’s a strong impression that the last life we get a couple of scenes from is supposed to be the closest to perfection yet – Ursula’s mother manages to prevent Ursula’s death at birth despite the non-arrival of the doctor by having the right tools at hand. And Teddy, Ursula’s favourite brother, survives the war. Which implies that the war is somehow necessary? But then how would Ursula know – she doesn’t survive the assassination of Hitler either time we see it happen, so she doesn’t know if the world is better. Maybe I’m reading too much into that – maybe it’s just meant to be a sign that there isn’t an ending and Ursula will continue to live through all the possible permutations.

The characters are well drawn, and through the repeated lives you get to see how the core personality of each person stays the same but the way events fall out changes how that manifests. The centre of the story is always Ursula, but also prominent are Sylvie (her mother) and Izzy (her father’s younger sister) who are two opposing poles of role models for womanhood. Sylvie is a respectable housewife & mother whose whole self is poured into those roles. Izzy elopes at 16, she has a child out of wedlock, she writes novels & newspaper columns, she lives in London on her own. She is the epitome of the new freedom a single woman can have in the London of the 1920s & beyond. At first Sylvie seems the more sympathetic character, and Izzy to be rather selfish & scatty. But over the course of several lives Sylvie seems less selfless & a lot more concerned with appearances and with respectability, and Izzy is always there when Ursula needs someone.

This was a really good book. This time I’ve read it as a library book, but I think I might buy myself a copy – it’s a book that will be good to re-read. In particular later tellings of similar scenes often reveal a little more about some character’s motivations/personality so when you re-read you will get a bit of a richer experience. It seems apt that this is a story with themes of repetition with variation & of the journey being more important than the destination, and it’s a book about which both of those things are true.

“Shadow of Night” Deborah Harkness

This is the sequel to “A Discovery of Witches” which I read a while ago (but haven’t written up anywhere). It took me a little while to get back into this world & story. The basic premise is that creatures live among us – witches, vampires & daemons. Witches are magic workers, as you’d expect, and it breeds true in families. Vampires drink blood, are immortal and must be made by another vampire, but the rest of the legends (like inability to walk in daylight) aren’t true. Daemons appear to be more complicated (can be born to human families, even), and are very creative & erratic – in this book Christopher Marlowe is a daemon. The creatures are ruled over by the Congregation, with rules about fraternisation between creature types and rules intended to keep them secret from ordinary humans.

The plot is about Diana Bishop (a witch & historian) and Matthew Clairmont (a vampire), a mysterious book and the origins of creatures. The first book was the two of them meeting, falling in love, marrying, finding the book & figuring out there was something big going on. In this book they’ve travelled back into the past so that Diana can learn how to use her powers away from the dangers in the present. They go back to 1590 and slot into Matthew’s life at that time, but obviously it’s not all plain sailing. First Diana has to learn to fit in with Elizabethan life, and then they get caught up in bits of the politics (both human and creature) of the day. There was some handwave about how present-day-Matthew’s arrival in the past meant that past-Matthew vanished for the duration (and presumably will be back once they’ve left), which just serves to leave me wondering if he’d have a hole in his memory afterwards? Or memories from the wrong Matthew? Or of the things he would’ve done if not displaced? Paradox is one of the things that’s a thread running through this book – each section of the story ends with a chapter set back in the present day as little ripples run up through time. Finding miniatures Hilliard painted of the two of them, finding a day book Diana wrote etc. And it’s clear by the end of the book that they’d always gone back to 1590 and lived there for months, but it’s also clear that this isn’t the way it was when the book started … probably.

The thing I’m not keen on in these books is the relationship between the two main characters. It’s all told from Diana’s point of view and I just don’t see what she sees in Matthew. He treats her like a child in many ways, ordering her around, telling her she doesn’t know enough to keep herself safe. And he’s so much older than her, and in 1590 is close to the centre of both creature & human politics, that he’s right too. She’s stumbling through a time period she only knows from books (she is a historian tho, and this is her time period of interest, so she’s better off than the average witch would be). And she’s not a trained witch yet (for complicated reasons). And their marriage is forbidden by the Congregation (as a general thing, not specifically this witch & this vampire). But even when she asserts herself he’s still dismissive – for example, she married him during the last book, she’s insistent she wants to be his wife and has first hand knowledge of the risk but wants it anyway. And still he spends half this book keeping her at arms length, mostly because he doesn’t really think she knows what she’s doing. But equally, he’s the one who actually gets them into most of the trouble they get into in this book. He rushes in without a plan and without giving anyone quite enough information, time after time. An example of this is that he plans for them to go back to 1590, and neglects to tell her who his friends in that time are or what his occupation is. And she’s the one who improvises the way back out of trouble when his lack of plan causes problems. She’s the one who finds herself a teacher after his attempts backfire. So why can’t he respect her for the intelligence & sense he supposedly loves, rather than trying to stop her using them? To be fair, he’s called on that by various of the secondary characters as well, so he’s not being held up by the author as a paragon of virtue.

But don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed both these books. I liked the portrayal of the Elizabethan era, and that Diana has culture shock and Matthew slips back almost (but not quite) into the attitudes of the time. I think Harkness has a deft touch with intertwining the creature politics and the human ones, things that make sense in our world as human things are recast as part of creature politics and make sense that way too. I liked the way that Diana’s inexplicable & strange inability to learn how to use her magic turned out to have a good reason behind it. And one that made travelling to 1590 turn out to be the best possible way to have done things. I also like how something spoilery happens – one of those scenarios where clearly this will work out in one way because Plot and then it doesn’t at all, it’s much more realistic. I think actually that might be the main thing I like about these books – yes, in some ways it’s urban fantasy with witches & vampires, but it’s got that grounding element of realism. And I suppose for all my rant about Matthew above, he’s realistic too.

I think it will be a trilogy, but I don’t know when the next book is out. Presumably next year not this year, at least.

“Book of Shadows” Paula Brackston

Another book I got out of the library after reading an excerpt on tor.com. Well, I read an excerpt of the sequel and remembered I’d been intrigued by the first one when I’d read that excerpt, and finally found out it had a different title in the UK.

The story is the story of Elizabeth Anne Hawksmith, born in the early 17th Century and still living in 2007 – told partly through her journal, and partly via three long flashbacks to significant events in her long life. She’s a witch – a real one, with real ability to do magic – who has lived her long life in fear of being found by the man (Gideon) who trained her. The magic system is the sort of traditional witchcraft from both 17th century & modern ideas of witchcraft – herbwives, healing, pacts with devilish beings, black witches & white ones, fires on Beltane, the Summerlands etc. That sounds dismissive, but actually I think it’s one of the strengths of the book – it’s not explained in detail, it just is and its recognisability makes it feel more real than some meticulously detailed explanation would.

In 2007 Elizabeth has just moved to a new home, and starts befriending a local teenager almost despite herself. She tells this teenager (Tegan) some of the story of her life – including how she came to be a witch in plague-stricken, witch-fearing 1627. The next interlude is Gideon catching up with her in 1888, and then we have the last time she loved someone (in the midst of the First World War). She’s hoping, initially, that she’s finally free of Gideon – but you can sense the inevitable results of letting her guard down right from the start of the book. However that doesn’t make it predictable – I didn’t guess what the ending was going to be until it happened, but once it did it felt right and a better end than the predictable thing I thought was coming.

It was a book I enjoyed reading, and I always wanted to know what happened next. But that’s not to say it’s without its flaws. In retrospect it feels like a lot happened off-screen that was actually rather important to the story – and then suddenly it’s revealed in the last few pages, and in some ways undermines the characterisation of Elizabeth that we’ve had up to that point. Also – Tegan was mostly a cipher, which didn’t help overcome the constant reminders of Doctor Who from her name (although the character was more Ace than Tegan in so far as she was developed). And Gideon felt a bit cartoonishly bad.

As far as I can tell this is Brackston’s first book (her webpage only mentions this (calling it “The Witch’s Daughter”, which is the title in the US) and the next one, “The Winter Witch”) – I’m not blown away by it, but I shall keep an eye out for more from her in future.