Blood and Iron

by Elizabeth Bear

Cover image

Series: Promethean Age #1
Publisher: Roc
Copyright: July 2006
ISBN: 0-451-46092-8
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 432

Buy at Powell's Books

It's a good sign for a fantasy novel when one can't easily place it in a particular subgenre. It's a better sign when that novel deals with Faerie, the war between humans and fey, and the Matter of Britain and still feels original.

Matthew is a human mage and member of the Prometheus Club, a secret society formed centuries earlier to defend humanity against the predations of Faerie. Seeker is a half-human, half-fey who was betrayed to Faerie and bound through geas to the Mebd, the Queen of Summer. Now, without her former name, she holds the position of Seeker, an agent of Faerie who finds the half-fey and kidnaps them, bringing them into Faerie. Keith is a werewolf, Seeker's former lover and the father of her child, and the reluctant heir to the leadership of his much-diminished pack.

The book opens with Seeker attempting to abduct a half-fey from the modern world and binding an ancient kelpie in the process, while Matthew attempts to stop her. Shortly thereafter, the Mebd reveals that a new Merlin and new Dragon King are imminent, repeating a cycle of Faerie, and sends Seeker to woo the Merlin and control this cycle of history. From there, the politics, the magic, and the alliances become more complex, leading to the revelation of a lot of tangled history and an all-out war between the Prometheus Club and Fairie.

I liked the battle between human and Faerie, the struggle of Faerie to survive through its long-standing predatory practices and the work by humans to bind the land in iron, to seek out fey places and control or remove their power, in the name of protecting humanity. The fantasy reader has a natural sympathy for the magical and legendary (plus two viewpoint characters are involved with Faerie), but Bear does a good job of balancing that affinity with clear reasons the actions of the Prometheus Club may be justified. Faerie is dangerous and cruel, the damage it has done and is doing is very real, and Seeker herself is torn between loyalties and often hates the fey she has to serve. I loved the way that geasa are handled, without shying away from either the usefulness or the coercion and using the bonds of obedience and life to weave together political alliances and power. Bear uses the symbolism of knotting hair as a springboard for solid physical description that put me in the scenes and gave me clear images of the characters.

Bear tells her story primarily with tight shots of individual characters, showing their emotional reactions, fears, and conflicts, which is both a feature and a problem. With such an excellent cast of sympathetic characters (Seeker in particularly stands out), I wanted to lose myself in these scenes, but the way in which they tie into the plot is often oblique. Frequently, the characters would realize something, emotionally react to some event, or make reference to some point of significance without telling the reader directly what was going on; the emotion is given in lieu of much exposition, but doesn't entirely substitute for it. The result is a sort of belated sideways explanation of the plot, leaving me a step behind the characters in figuring out what's going on. It's not that the book was confusing overall — the significance of some event generally became apparent in a few more pages — but I kept being kicked into an intellectual puzzle-solving mode to work out the plot when I really wanted to be emotionally engaging with the characters. At times, I was wishing for more omniscient epic fantasy narration that laid out the significance of what was happening so that I could react viscerally rather than not understanding the emotions until a few pages later.

My other major frustration with this novel was the degree to which the Merlin becomes sidelined. The grand quest at the beginning of the book is to find the new Merlin and woo her to one of the three major competing sides (the Prometheus Club, the Daoine Sidhe, and the Unseelie Court, the latter having only an ancillary role in this story). When she turned out to be female, black, and considerably more worldly, astute, and competent than anyone expects, she fit perfectly for me into the balance between subverting and honoring faerie stories that Blood and Iron strikes. She became my favorite character of the book, even more than Seeker, and then other political events take center stage and she was oddly sidelined. She still shows up from time to time for the rest of the book, but more as a source of power than as a sharp-witted free agent who's suspicious of all sides. That was disappointing.

Still, despite a few problems, this is excellent work. Bear confronts Faerie head-on, including the dangerous and ugly bits, and doesn't shield the reader with reassuring happily ever after vibes. Her supporting cast is as strong as the main characters; besides the Merlin, the kelpie Whiskey, the dragon Mist, Weyland the smith, and even the Mebd are intriguing, multi-faceted, and suffused with a sense of perilous wonder. She also writes a few brilliant scenes and set pieces, the most memorable for me being Matthew's questioning of the lions of the New York Public Library and the beautifully handled (and beautifully explained) Tolkien homage near the climax. I expect Blood and Iron to be compared to Laurell K. Hamilton's Merry Gentry series just because of the contemporary Faerie setting with less urban fantasy trappings and more focus on gaesa and political power, but Hamilton's work is really romance with the trappings of faerie monsters and always twists towards happy outcomes and less daring plots. Bear has one of her characters give away both name and soul in the middle of the book, does a shift of perspective to cue the change to the reader, and has the character's personality noticeably change in ways that are as tragic as they are magical. This is more Guy Gavriel Kay than Hamilton, even though the perspective and style is far different.

Blood and Iron is self-contained and comes to a satisfying conclusion, but I'm glad to see there will be more books in the series. There was a lot left unexplored, and I'm hoping we'll see quite a bit more of the Merlin than we did. I'm looking forward to spending more time in this world. Bear manages to hold the edge of an emotion that's fleeting and hard to put into words, not reliably and not consistently, but often enough that I want to see more.

Followed by Whiskey and Water.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-08-05

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