No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, February 02, 2008

#13: Blood and Iron -- Elizabeth Bear

You can apparently be a whole goddamned bushel of fairy tales. It's required. We're all fairy tales together.

Blood and Iron riffs on ballad and faerie tale, and especially on Tam Lin and the tithe to Hell: what effect did Tam Lin's escape have on policy in the Faerie Court? has anyone ever come back from Hell? what benefit accrues from that tithe?

Elaine Andraste is part-Fae, part mortal, and Seeker of the Daoine Sidhe, a kind of talent scout for changelings and those with faerie blood. It's a dirty job and a thankless one, but she is bound to obey, and her son's held hostage in case she should balk.

Blood and Iron is, on one level, the story of Elaine's quest for the Merlin -- not a name but a title, pertaining to a powerful magician -- who turns out, this time round, to be Dr Carel Bierce, musician and professor of geology and female to boot. Legend being cyclic, or at least doomed to repeat itself, the reappearance of the Merlin heralds the appearance of a new Dragon Prince: a mythic warrior-king who appears once every five hundred years to lead his people to freedom. Past incumbents include Arthur, Harold Godwinson (King of England to 1066) and Vlad Dracul.

This would all be trying enough without the opposition: the centuries-old Prometheus Club, mortals whose agenda is to promote Reason, Technology and cold Iron at the expense of the Fae, who have been fading ever since the world began to be ringed with iron railways, steamships and the cult of the material. The Prometheans are planning a raid on Faerie to retrieve all the children stolen through the ages: they seek the Merlin's power as eagerly as do the Fae.

There is considerably more to the tale than this: the Matter of Britain, the Dragon Herself, a speaking willowtree (neither as jovial nor as predatory as one might expect), a tribe of Scottish werewolves, and Morgan le Fay, who kicks ass. There are, in particular, some very interesting developments subsequent to what I want to call The Tam Lin Affair: for instance, the Queen of Fairy (the Medb) does now steal away the hearts of her young mortal lovers. Because although the old stories keep coming around, they can be changed.

I don't think I like Elaine very much: but I feel her pain, and I am utterly fascinated by her knife-edge relationship with Uisgebaugh, the kelpie she's bound, who goes by the name of Whiskey, can be human or equine in form and is pretty much obliged to plot the downfall of his captor. Elaine, luckily, can hold her own (and the trick she plays is mirrored in narrative in a way that made me simultaneously punch the air and wonder whether it shouldn't have been the other way around).

I've been struggling with this review: I don't know whether it's because of the plot, the characters, the backstory or the tone of the novel. It may simply be that there are a great many things I want to point to and say "Shiny!" I've a nagging feeling that I've been beguiled by the words and the speakers, and missed something vital in the plot. But I don't mind reading again: for the Medb's court, thornily terrible and beguilingly (and liberally) erotic; for Murchaud, Duke of Hell, whose back story I'd very much like to read; for the fast, noirish prose and the rich twistiness of plot; for Aine (a.k.a. the Cat Anna), Queen of the Leannan Sidhe; for the stories that change and the ones that entrap.

This was the second of three books I read on holiday that unexpectedly quoted 'The House of the Rising Sun'.

1 comment:

  1. I've just read it too! My main problem was that I assumed the main thrust of the story was going to be about the choices the Merlin made - and it wasn't. I also wanted to see more of Matthew and Jane (who was very scary).

    There was definite shinyness throughout. This is the first Elizabeth Bear I've read - apart from dipping into her blog.

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