The room is immense. The table settings are immaculate and gilded. The person sitting to your left is an academic discussing Elizabethan drama. The person on your right? Imagine that, another academic, this one an expert in medieval English folklore. They talk around you mostly, rarely caring if you understand their discussions. Then the impeccably clad waiter brings the first course. You have no idea what the food is. But everyone else at the table is raving about the taste. Not bad, pretty bold-tasting. But then the next course is even lusher, and by the third plate you are reaching more for the water than the fork. I think many of us have been invited to banquets or dinner parties reminiscent of Elizabeth Bear's Blood and Iron: A Novel of the Promethean Age. If Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? could inspire a fantasy novel, Blood and Iron would be it.
There can be no denying Bear has writing chops. But she seems overly eager to remind readers of her skill in turning a phrase or her knowledge of English ballads. The first half of the book is mired in simile, burdening nearly every page with descriptions that go beyond lush and into overripe. The reader has to wade through microphones "bent like a black swan's neck toward her lips" and "dark eyes glistening intent as a bird's, motionless as a heron stalking a fish." This book contains more outlandish descriptions of noses, and more usage of the adjective "greasy," in this book than any other fantasy novel that has ever crossed my desk.
The plot involves a centuries-old cold war waged between the Fae Courts and the Prometheus Club, a worldwide network of magi. Since the time of Elizabeth I, the Fae have been slowly losing. Their realm, separate yet not distant from the mortal world, has been shrinking as their numbers dwindle. In the 21st century, when the book begins, a changeling has been enslaved to the Queen of the Seelie Court. Seeker, as she is known, steals other half-fey children from the mortal world. A mage, Matthew, occasionally opposes her, as does her Unseelie Court counterpart Kadiska. Seeker's old flame is a werewolf, destined to lead his fellows but oddly uninterested in the position. When word comes of the birth of a Merlin—a living embodiment of magic born rarely—both human and Fae are shocked. But both also covet the Merlin's power, and seek to posesss the man.
Except that this Merlin, Carel, is a woman, and an unwieldy blend of geology professor, savant, heiress to Sappho, and incredibly gifted bard. Seeker, being the protagonist and a beautiful woman, has no difficulty in convincing the Merlin that the side of the Fae is more just than that of the dully presented Magi. The Merlin prophesizes the identity of the Dragon Prince, a warlord who will change the face of the Earth to satisfy the bloodlust of the Dragon, a Magna Mater with scales. Of course, there is little surprise when Seeker's ex-lover, the lycanthrope, turns out to be the Dragon Prince.
This is the venue of high fantasy. Bear tries on occasion to surpass the limits of that sub-genre, and should be lauded for writing a novel with no villains—avoiding, for example, high fantasy's tendency for monochrome morality, showing that both sides of the war have their moments of zeal and doubt. However, because the novel is so slanted towards the ranks of the Fae (ironic, considering the book's subtitle) by viewpoint characters, the resulting arguments seem to occasionally miss their mark. In one instance, Carel and Matthew have been arguing over the struggle between the Fae and the Mages:
Matthew shrugged in his turn. "You know what the Fae are. You know what the Fae do. What more do you need?"
"And the Prometheus Club is innocent in its power?"
"I never said that. But we're trying to protect—" His bruises reminded him of exactly what it was he meant to protect.
"Have you ever been married, Matthew?" Unexpected and abrupt. She finally looked up at him as she said it, her expression arch and concentrated.
"—um? No." He shook his head, then pushed escaping locks of hair out of his eyes. "I haven't been married."
"Neither have I," she said, her sternness melting into a conspiratorial grin as she stepped onto the path. "But a friend told me that in a good marriage, nobody wins."
While an interesting exchange, the fact remains that the Mages are working towards the best interest of humanity, protecting them from the mercurial, and often dangerous, attention of the Fae. The Merlin's sympathies for the Fae are never rationalized beyond an attraction to the far more romantic enchantment promised by life among elves; the Merlin arguably symbolizes the Everyreader of the high fantasy genre, preferring a mythical existence to reality's bite.
In addition, an early major plot development involving Seeker's true heritage relies on the biggest and oldest cliché in the genre. Rather than work against trope, in this case Bear gives in to it.
The Fae court will be familiar to high fantasy readers: a European-style monarchy, complete with knights and jesters. But its stagnancy is never called into question, never challenged by the author. They drink and eat human food, lie with casual ease, and are not far removed from the common elf of countless stories. The Prometheus Club is also not inventive; the Technocracy featured in the roleplaying game system Mage is far more modern and dangerous, and the average teenager walks around with more technological suaveness and gadgetry than the Magi in Blood and Iron. This makes the Fae's claims that the Magi were responsible for binding the world in iron and guiding the advances of science seem spurious.
On the other hand, the means for binding the Fae and spirits is fresh and clever and invests the reader in the nature and rules of enchantment. Bear's craft also shines though in the creation of the Pack, a worldwide social order of lycanthropes. Their mannerisms and traditions are not only logical but also endearing. These creatures seem a blend of magic and modernity. It seems natural that they should serve as mediators between the Fae and the Magi, although their Prince's passion for Seeker precludes this role.
But this does bring up another question: does Seeker deserve all the devotion she inspires in others? Everyone who deals with Seeker either falls in love with her or dotes upon her; she is yet another dark and mysterious beauty, and might as well have been penned by Laurell K. Hamilton. Even her enemies are pleasant to the extreme in their dealings with the changeling, which is hardest to credit—even the most charismatic leaders have their detractors. Mind you, nearly everyone encountered in the book is indulgently attractive. While a certain amount of glamour is expected in any book with faeries, one of the shortcomings of high fantasy is the temptation to make all the major leads beautiful or handsome. Bear seems trapped by the medieval-era fallacy that outward appearance foretells demeanor, while more sophisticated readers surely know this to be a lie and would appreciate a more realistic perspective.
In contrast, despite being rendered again and again in doting detail, the personalities of the lead characters are uniformly bland. Seeker seems bitter at being a slave to the queen, yet has no problem with enslaving others. Her child has been taken from her, but she never acts or schemes to reclaim him. As a changeling, born and raised among mortals, Seeker is supposed to straddle both worlds. But her remarks about and recollections of her human heritage never carry the weight necessary to make her a viable bridge. She seems more petulant than angsty, and though called clever, she is actually only fortunate.
At any banquet, there is always the person you really wish you could have spent more time talking with. It's the same in Blood and Iron: Bear's minor characters are richly depicted and wonderful. She takes her time, developing personalities that hide their designs. Chief among these is Kelpie, who starts the novel as Seeker's enemy and transforms into something far more vital to her character. Morgan le Fay is the most interesting woman in the book, largely because she remains in doubt, a complicated mystery to the reader. But sadly these characters are drowned out by the braggarts. In every chapter (or so it seems) there is at least one reference to English song or Fae lore by a speaker, with the other characters nodding in sage understanding. Again, this seemed like the author tipping her hand, showing her erudition at the expense of her characters and story.
And as dinner parties have so many conversations happening at once that it's hard to focus on the one that most interests you, so Bear's chapters are split among the deeds of all her major players. This point-of-view choice inadvertently weakens the book's more poignant scenes, with the sudden shifts leaving the reader stranded. A sudden change to first person in the last third of the book is equally distracting and unnecessary.
Gourmands of high fantasy, especially of books dealing with faerie courts, will enjoy being asked to share Bear's well-laden table. Despite some promising elements, gourmets of fantasy expecting to find something innovative may discover themselves picking at the servings, and itching to leave the academic boors behind and find a different place to dine.
Steve Berman has had authentic Mongolian barbeque and drank fermented mare's milk. When he's not torturing his stomach with odd cuisine, he writes and has sold nearly 70 short stories and articles, including pieces featured in Strange Horizons and The Faery Reel. He is the editor of the forthcoming So Fey: Queer Faery Fictions (Haworth Press, 2007). Steve currently resides in New Jersey, the only state with an official devil.