"Morgan. You're a story."
"Aye, Master Marley. Poet, Queen's Man, cobbler's boy," she said. "I'm a story. And now, so art thou." (p. 352)
Ink and Steel is the first part of a duology (or, in the author's own words, 'two halves of a really long novel, which is collectively known as The Stratford Man'). The other volume is Hell and Earth, which I ordered from Amazon within minutes of finishing this book.
Which is to say that I liked Ink and Steel very much indeed. (More than I liked Blood and Iron, which engaged but did not bewitch me.)
Christopher Marlowe is dead, stabbed in a Deptford pub; a secret underworld of men loyal to Queen Elizabeth must now find another playwright who can work magic into the words he pens, and thus confound the shadowy Promethean Society. "I know a man," says Richard Burbage: and so William Shakespeare, still shaken by the death of his friend Kit, is recruited to the cause. Cue magic, murder, mystery and ... well, as it says of Marlowe in the prefatory 'Principal Players', "dead (to begin with)".
Kit Marley does not die in Deptford. With the aid of an innkeeper's wife who happens to be related to the Queen of Faerie's court musician, he is stolen away to the glamorous, decadent and intrigue-riddled realm of Faerie, to which initially (to the reader, at least) he seems ideally suited. But there's more to Kit Marley than a pretty -- albeit scarred -- face and a flexible attitude, and more to his aspirations than immortality and entertainment. It's not long before he's back in the mortal world, caught between the Mebd, Faerie's Queen, and Elizabeth of England -- whose reigns reinforce one another -- and trying hard not to interfere in the affairs of those mortals he yet cares for.
Kit is an immensely likeable character, but not wholly popular in either Faerie or London: he is, quintessentially, a survivor, competent and dangerous without compromising a passionate heart and a quick wit. He is also, as becomes evident, a kind of weapon: it's not clear from this volume how capably he resists being used.
I've read quite a few fictional versions of William Shakespeare: I like Bear's portrayal better than most. Will's playmaking is not the only thing of note about him, nor even the most important -- though it propels him into the heart of the action quickly enough. He is flawed (jealous, prejudiced, occasionally inept) and very human. And I am utterly captivated by Bear's interpretation of the Sonnets (and consequences thereof).
Kit and Will are the viewpoint characters: we see everyone else through their eyes, and they are not necessarily reliable witnesses. (Don't blame them: there's magic fogging the gaze.) The members of the Faerie court -- Robin Goodfellow, Geoffrey, the Lady Amaranth -- are as idiosyncratic and individual as Francis Walsingham or Richard Burbage or Edward de Vere. Morgan is compelling, and utterly credible throughout; Murchaud, though, I felt as though I hardly knew.
Bear's prose is ... I'm trying to think of a way of saying this that doesn't sound negative, because that's not how I mean it. The words flow, smooth and simple. (The pace of the novel flows nicely too, from hectic action scenes to quiet introspection.) There aren't passages that make me want to quote at length: the beauty of her writing is in well-chosen words, in images or oddities that halt the eye on the page. the kind arch of wings, Occasional anachronism, but again, it flows -- though I was jarred by the notion of any Elizabethan regarding themself as young at the age of 29.
Though there is sex in this novel (both homo and hetero) it's seldom explicit, and when there is detail it isn't pornographic: rather, the sex scenes do what all scenes should do, which is illustrate and reinforce character. (I'm thinking especially of the scene near the end: "Christ ... Christ ... Christ.")
I am very likely to be reading Hell and Earth in the next week or so: it's in the mail ...