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

Saturday, January 30, 2010

2010/07: Whiskey and Water -- Elizabeth Bear

"All books are lies, but the books that say you can walk out of Faerie unscathed are more so. It's not that you come back and not a moment has passed -- it's that you're gone a moment, and fifteen years have gone, and everyone you loved has forgotten you." (p.134)

In which Elizabeth Bear illustrates, in diverse and creative ways, the truth of the adage 'better the devil you know'. And she is of the devil's party -- but unlike Milton, knows it very well, thank you.

Whiskey and Water is the sequel to Blood and Iron, which I read some time ago and enjoyed -- but not enough to get around to reading the next volume. In a way, I'm glad: I was desperate to read Whiskey and Water once I discovered that one of the protagonists is a character from 'The Stratford Man' (see previous review(s)), but I don't think I would have been so utterly hooked on that character if I'd read Whiskey and Water before Ink and Steel.

Which means that I read Whiskey and Water as a much-later sequel to The Stratford Man, rather than directly as a sequel to Blood and Iron -- so my perceptions are likely coloured by my bias.

It's seven years after Blood and Iron, Faerie is known and recognised in the human world (Cairbre, the Queen's Bard, has been in Time magazine) and an uneasy peace reigns. Jane Andraste is gathering mages about her once more. Matthew Sczcegialniak (a name for which copy'n'paste was invented) is a somewhat laissez-faire guardian of New York City, teaching Renaissance Drama and running in the park, setting off car alarms and confounding technology and trying not to listen for the sound of the other shoe falling. The woman who was once Elaine sits on the throne of Faerie, attended by the shapechanger she calls Whiskey, who holds her soul. Merlin the Magician is an up-state lecturer, and hangs out with a New Age coven: there's a new addition, a young woman named Michael, who's learning to read Tarot.

And meanwhile, in another place, a poet is packing his bags, ready to venture forth and avenge the death of his lover.

The action's kicked off by the brutal murder of a young woman -- a murder that bears the hallmarks of a Fae killing. Detective Donall Smith is trying to trace the killer, and finds himself ensnared in the politics of the Prometheans and the Fae.

The murdered woman's friends, Geoff and Jewels (the latter's Otherkin, which is to say wannabe Fae) fall in with Matthew -- and with Lily, a Goth whose lover Christian knows more than he says. Cue what would in another author's hands be a novel in itself, about who has power and who aspires to it, about how it's won and how it's lost. I liked these three (and was greatly amused by the narrative's disdain for the poses and pretences of the Goth / New Age scene) but they were overshadowed by the setting and the other characters.

Whiskey and Water is a very full novel. There are figures from more than one mythos, feuds ancient and modern, a murderer's ghost -- who was Orfeo? -- a plethora of Devils (the conceit being that each author's Devil is a different one, Dante's an idiot god ceaselessly gnawing, crouched on his idiot throne, Milton's Satan with a certain urbane bravado, for all his groaning wings and reek of brimstone (p.222)), a swan-may, a masked ball and tea with Morgan le Fay.

"... I remember now. Things I never remembered before. This story, that story, all of them different. Every one contradicting the others. I used to know history. Now I don't even know my own, who I was, who I loved, how I lived --"
"It's all true."
"It's all lies."
"False things are true ... What colour is my hair?"
"Black," he said, combing the strawberry locks through his fingers. "Black as sin, black as sorcery ..." (p. 446)

The novel, incidentally, is written in omniscient third person, which made me itch and twitch until I identified my unease: flitting from one person's thoughts to another mid-scene, mixing motivations, requires more attention from the reader. There is nothing wrong with 3rd-omniscient, at all, but I've seldom noticed it so much as I did here.

Whiskey and Water pulls no punches: Elizabeth Bear is not gentle on her characters, nor they with one another. And, as before, the ending -- which made me teary again -- is painful but right.

... where there's life there's hope. And I hear these days they're changing stories all the time. (p. 447)

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