Whiskey and Water

by Elizabeth Bear

Cover image

Series: Promethean Age #2
Publisher: Roc
Copyright: July 2007
ISBN: 0-451-46149-0
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 431

Buy at Powell's Books

Whiskey and Water is a sequel to Blood and Iron, and while it's not a direct plot continuation, it relies heavily on the consequences and on some of the introductions from the previous book and you should read it first. Besides, it's a great book.

In Blood and Iron, we were introduced to the universe, met the major characters, and then everything went boom in spectacular ways. Now, seven years later, it's time to pick up the pieces. It's also time to deal with the neglected additional players in this world: Hell and Heaven.

Bear doesn't have quite the touch with multicornered politics between Heaven, Hell, and other powers that Neil Gaiman has, but I found her take quite satisfying. The twist she brings to Hell that I haven't seen done before is to take several major literary conceptions of the Devil (Milton's, Marlowe's, etc.) and populate Hell with them, as rivals and occasional allies. It's more satisfying than the normal picture of one Satan and his subservient devils and it's a springboard into exploring differing conceptions of evil, rebellion, pride, and outlooks on what Hell and temptation should be. The powers are handled with suitable impressiveness and distinction: tragically impressive physical force, beauty and pride, and devious manipulativeness are all present and have their time in the sun.

Portraying Heaven is tricky. Putting God on stage is desperately risky: C.S. Lewis does it about as well as can be done, he draws a sharp trinitarian distinction between Aslan and the Emperor Beyond the Sea, and Aslan still has a tendency to turn up as a convenient plot device. But not putting God on stage means that one of the powers is mostly noticeable by its absence, the author has to deal with his unwillingness to appear, and everyone is left guessing what Heaven wants. A bit of mystery is fitting, but too much ineffability leaves Heaven looking senile, passive, or powerless. Bear addresses the problem sideways by giving us a single representative of Heaven in the person of the angel Michael, brilliantly casting the traditional avenging warrior of God as a distrustful female waif who nonetheless manages to act like the avenging warrior of God. Heaven's parts are filtered through her conflicts and attitudes, leaving the nature of Heaven to fall out of her beliefs, nobility, stubbornness, and convictions. No need to bring God on camera, Michael is active in the plot, and yet there's that distance between what Michael believes and what God is doing that adds the useful touch of uncertainty. And Michael, as a character, is one of the best of the book.

There are books that reach out and grab you. This one got me on page 56.

Christian blinked at the weapon, and stood, dusting himself with careful palms, as casually as if Michael were aiming a feather duster at him and not a blade composed of primal entropy. "Lily likes me," he said. "And you know what? That's your problem, Michael. Nobody likes you. Nobody ever has. And I can teach Lily to use her power. You wouldn't even permit her that."

"I have love," Michael said. "And that's all I need. Or Lily needs."

"Just like your God." He stepped back. She didn't follow him, though the sword remained trained on him, unwavering. "Just like Him to give potential and desire, and make the fulfillment a sin. Bit of a practical joker, isn't He?"

"Leave Lily Wakeman alone."

Christian kissed the palm of his hand at the angel. "Make me."

A wonderfully unusual Michael, snarky banter, confrontation between frustrated certainty and devious and persuasive argument, a wonderful plot-setting challenge, and a note of tragedy under the surface of an angel, all wrapped up in one lovely scene. Throughout the book, Bear shows us Michael through scenes like this, where she says little, seems ill-equipped to handle argument, falls back too quickly on violence, and yet develops into a fully-fleshed character worthy of respect. (There's another scene on a rooftop in the rain which is simply magical.)

This matter of Heaven and Hell is one plot. There are a pile of others. Matthew caught a lot of fallout from Blood and Iron and still has to come to terms with much of it. Elaine was left in a difficult position, and Whiskey even more so. Morgan is, of course, still around. There's the unseelie to deal with. And Christopher Marlowe shows up, just to add another card to the mix (and perhaps to foreshadow future books in the series). Marlowe isn't exactly my thing, but he seems to be a quite good Marlowe; if that's your thing, I expect you'll enjoy it.

That's a lot of plots. If I had one primary point of dissatisfaction with this book, it was the quantity of plots, the large cast all after different things, and the lack of cohesion between all those goals, problems, and confrontations. They're not completely disconnected, but neither did I sense a single unifying plot arc. There are two mostly independent climactic battles. There's a separate climactic event that seems mostly unrelated to either of them. Various people sort out their love lives, with varying degrees of success, and sometimes seem to be doing it while on a coffee break from participating in another plot. I'm not sure if I just missed the underlying thematic unification or if there's something more subtle that turns this into a mosaic, but I came away feeling that Whiskey and Water was a bit scattershot.

It was very good scattershot, though, full of delightful moments and several excellent scenes. What held the book together, I think, are the three human tourists who show up in New York at the start of the story, who almost immediately get into trouble and attract attention, and who cut a brilliant arc through the tangled complexities of the book with a wonderfully human fascination, curiosity, and sense of exploration. As far as I'm concerned, the pivotal center of this book is Jewels.

Whiskey is the titular star and gets a great deal of screen time, but he's trapped in an untenable position with few options and ends up remarkably passive. Most of the returning characters from Blood and Iron start out passive. They've made their choices, they've made their beds, and they're lying in them. Even the angels and devils are settled into long patterns, in conflict but not shaken out of their well-worn roles. The humans, and particularly Jewels (and to a lesser extent Lily and Marlowe) are catalysts. They don't have the power, they're often not at the center of what's happening, and they're often playing supporting roles in the clashes, but I got the sense that little would have happened if they weren't there to see it happen, to ask questions, to want.

I have no idea how much this was intentional and how much of it I brought to the book (Jewels is a character type to which I'm particularly drawn), but it's a fascinating theme, particularly since this is not the character Jewels wants to play. Slowly coming to understand Jewels's perspective was, for me, the most satisfying parts of the book; I don't want to spoil it for anyone else. But the tension between what Jewels wants to be and what she actually is and how that changes the story felt like it encapsulated a truth about the role of humans in magic and the role of listeners in stories. Jewels and Elaine are in a sense mirrors of each other, inverses of ability and desire. That conflict between what one wants and what one can have and how to make the right choices was the part of the book from which I got the deepest thematic enjoyment.

I felt like much of Whiskey and Water involved people trying to become lead characters and failing, and people who didn't want to be lead characters becoming ones despite themselves. Alas, Carel, the Merlin, was again not one of the ones who got the lead. I love the character, but every time one thinks she's been trapped into the starring role, it slides off of her onto those around her. (A pattern oddly similar to the way that magic seems to react around her, now that I think of it.) We see much more of her life, her circle of friends, even her problems, but she's just not a protagonist. It's a bit disappointing, but Jewels and Michael more than make up for it.

Blood and Iron was written in tight third-person. Whiskey and Water is omniscient and needed it. If you found Blood and Iron frustrating due to the lack of insight into motivations and emotions, rest assured that Bear has largely fixed that here (at the cost of a few awkward mid-scene transitions between whose heads we're poking around in). The result can be overwhelming: Bear's characters are stuffed to the gills with motivations, conflicts, pasts, quirks, and self-deprecating banter. This plus the tangled weave of plots makes Whiskey and Water occasionally feel like two and a half novels worth of material that a cat has had a grand time working over like a skein of yarn. But for all that, it's a great book; Jewels and Michael are worth the reading experience by themselves, and they're far from the only good bits.

Followed, in that prequel sort of way, by Ink and Steel.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-08-03

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21