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Review: Blood and Iron by Elizabeth Bear
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lil_shepherd
Blood and Iron by Elizabeth Bear

I approached this book with both anticipation and trepidation. The author's lj is one of my favourite reads, and she writes as well as anyone about the art of writing, with verve and wit and insight, but I'd never read any of her novels before. As it turned out, I was both a little disappointed and very relieved. Disappointed that the book was not quite as good as I'd hoped, but relieved that it was a great deal better than I'd feared.

The first thing to say is that, physically, this book is not up to the standard I have come to expect from American publishers. In particular, the paper and binding are of low quality for this size of paperback, and certainly for the price charged.

Reading the first couple of pages, I began to wonder what I had let myself in for. The style reminded me of Patricia A McKillip's prose at its most 'jewelled' but McKillip's books are not normally this (420 close-packed pages) long. However, "Luckily, after a while, the style settles down a bit...." thank goodness. Bear is well aware that a telling detail is worth couple of paragraphs of uninspired if accurate description, and some of the writing is terrific. I do think it needed a bit more editorial proof reading to avoid some of the repetitions and occasional over-writing, but those never annoyed me so much I wanted to put it down (and dissatisfaction with the style is one of the main reasons for me abandoning a book.) However, those opening pages did make me hope that, like McKillip, Bear would produce a fantasy outside the ordinary. Unfortunately, though this is a superior fantasy, it is not an extraordinary one.

To start with the strongest point: the plot is complex, intriguing and fairly rattles along. It's a real page-turner, though if you don't have a solid grounding in Celtic and Arthurian myth you might soon get lost amid a host of characters, nations, motivations and backstories.


The characters are many, various, and rather unlikeable. If, when trawling around for someone to empathise with, you end up with a werewolf, Morgan le Fey, and a Duke of Hell, you know you're in a certain amount of trouble. Seeker, the main point of view character, is particularly dislikeable, as is the 'Merlin' - my main problem with the latter being that her motivation is totally opaque. Why has she chosen as she has – without much heart-searching, apparently? Answers, on a postcard...

However, my main disappointment lies in the fact that there is nothing original in the world building. This is yet another American/Celtic elves-among-us story and while it is the best book in this sub-genre I have read, I am not particularly fond of said sub-genre at the best of times. Added to this is the mixing of Christian and Celtic myth (which works no better than the standard Celtic/American mix) which reminds me of the DC comics fantasy universe – in particular the universe of The Books of Magic - while the Arthur of the story recalls Guy Gavriel Kay's version, without Kay's heart-wrenching evocation of his tragedy and redemption. His motivation is a bit chancy here, too. I have a nasty feeling that Morgan Le Fey owes something to Bradley's version (The Mists of Avalon being a book I detest, mainly because it's badly researched and nothing happens) because it certainly isn't Mallory's, and there's T.H. White and possibly Boorman's Excalibur in the mix, plus echoes of all those pony-books-for-fantasy-fans that litter the landscape.

Another element that worries me was the werewolves. Don't get me wrong – they form the most attractive bunch of characters in the story. It's just that they aren't very, well, wolfish, particularly in their society, which does not reflect that of wolves in the least (unlike, for instance, those in Brian Stapleford's The Werewolves of London.)

While plenty of blood is spilt, Bear's Fae are not (quite) heartless – or soul-less, a distinction that passes me by - enough to convince as the Sidhe of myth, or, for that matter 'alien' enough. I'm also worried that there was not even a hint of how magic works within the Faerie realms. Sure, there's a lot of blood magic, and name magic, and a bit of numbers magic, and a dragon that may be the Goddess - but it all seems flung together in a hotchpotch. What are the principles? Why does it work?

We don't see enough of the magic of the Prometheans to figure out how it works either, and Bear goes out of her way to make them unsympathetic and tiresome, without any reference skill and courage needed to storm Annwn – and with good reason, if you ask me.

As an aside here: I am not sure if we are meant to agree with Seeker's justifications of the Fae, but they do not compute. The only reason the Fae have not committed genocide on those troublesome humans is because they need them, while the humans don't need the Fae, but have been sorely provoked by them. Humans may commit dreadful crimes against their own – so do the Fae – but they are also capable of compassion, which the traditional Fae most certainly are not. I have done enough reading and have enough prejudices so that I am on the Promethean side and would have been quite happy to see the Fae realms vanquished.

While most of the evocation of the fairy realms (not to mention present day America) uses clever and imaginative description, there is an occasional oddity – or perhaps I have too much of a five-colour imagination. From the description of the Promethean invasion I received this picture of this giant screw (a bit like International Rescue's 'mole' or the Molemen's vehicle from the early Fantastic Four vastly enlarged) breaking through the grass and earth into Annwn, and Wayland Smith leaping about like some demented version of Montgomery Scott hitting it with his hammer yelling, "Ye canna change the laws of Magic, Captain." (Except, as I said above, there don't seem to be many, save a three-times test.) Also, I got to wondering, as I often do with fantasy in general, about the economy and agriculture and day-to-day governance of the fairy realms, which is a dangerous enough practice with Tolkien, let alone his successors. I also wondered about hair-care in the Faerie realms, what with those braids one wouldn't dare undo, possibly for thousands of years...


Of course, one of the things the book is about is how storytelling changes the world so that myth becomes fact – in this case quite literally. Bear's choices in respect of that myth would not always have been mine, but the background of the book completely justifies them. Indeed, all those 'echoes' of modern day fantasy books and films and comics that I complained about behind the cut may well be completely deliberate, and the very point of Blood and Iron. If so, how very Post Modern.

Perhaps Bear will make this clearer in other books in this sequence – and I shall be there because, despite having found this book a little disappointing, there is enough meat in it for me to stick around. Fantasy novels as interesting and well written as this one are a rarity. As I said at the beginning, it is a superior fantasy, if not an original one, and I'm looking forward to the next one.

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a bit more editorial proof reading to avoid some of the repetitions and occasional over-writing

Like the bundle of twigs wrapped in wire/rags/a blanket? Or how damn near everything in the book is either a blade or made of ice, metaphorically? :->

Yeah. I'm with you. I liked bits of it, but on the whole I found it rather unsatisfying.

Thanks for posting; now I can feel slightly reassured not to be the Only One of the lovers-of-the-blog to be underwhelmed by B&I.

Like the bundle of twigs wrapped in wire/rags/a blanket? Or how damn near everything in the book is either a blade or made of ice, metaphorically? :->

[Snork!]

Something like that. It is interesting that the thing that Bear objects to in my review is the throw-away line about the hairdressing...

Yeah. Oh, and before anyone thinks i'm a philistine, I do GET that cold-and-blades is the leitmotif of this book.

But there's a difference between weaving a thread in under the narrative to give you creepies, and having someone pop out of a hidden door every ten minutes to go, "Hey! Look! That thing? That she's holding? It's LIKE A BLADE! Innit coooooooool?"

I think one casualty of her self-confessed 'pared-down' style this time around was that every piece of light padding or comfort that made the book subtler was edited out.

I guess that when you 'pare down' a style then you have to be careful what you slice away. Not that the style is all that pared-down in places...

Incidentally, though I carefully hadn't read anyone else's review until I did my own, I was chuffed to notice you had picked up on what I think is the book's major weakness: the lack of characters you care about. Sure, the Fae are bastards - they always have been - but did all the humans have to be too? And even bastards can be loveable.




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