Ink and Steel by Elizabeth Bear
Review by Cynthia Ward
Christofer Marley has been treacherously slain. It appears that he died in some sordid brawl, but the murder is in fact the hidden act of one faction of the divided Prometheans, secret conspirators who serve Queen Elizabeth I. Marley’s death leaves no writer to pen the magically potent plays that keep the queen on England’s throne. But his co-conspirators hope to use another playwright: a promising young talent named Will Shakespeare.
Unbeknownst to mortals, Marley’s life was saved by a queen of Faerie. He seeks his killers and aids Shakespeare in spywork and play-magic. But when Shakespeare is drawn into Faerie, the playwrights’ relationship changes. And a higher power than even Faerie takes a dark interest in the pair.
Ink and Steel is the new novel in Elizabeth Bear’s fantasy series, “The Promethean Age.” Ink and Steel is also the first volume of “The Stratford Man,” a duology whose second and concluding volume is Heaven and Earth.
With its beautiful prose, superior characterizations, intricate conspiracy, and deep historical, literary, and folkloric research, Ink and Steel demonstrates why Bear has received the Hugo, Campbell, Locus, and Sturgeon Awards.
However, the novel also has a pair of significant weaknesses. The first is that, when William Shakespeare’s feelings for his friend and colleague Christofer Marley (a.k.a. Christopher Marlowe) shift from platonic to romantic, readers are given no glimpse of Shakespeare’s thoughts during his bisexual awakening. This absence makes the change difficult to believe, given that Ink and Steel initially presents Shakespeare as a heterosexual repulsed by homosexuality.
The novel’s second weakness is its restless focus. The main plotline follows Shakespeare’s development, with Marley’s help, as a magician-playwright/conspirator/spy. But this plotline essentially vanishes as Bear explores Shakespeare and Marley’s altered relationship in depth. Then, both relationship and conspiracy take a back seat as Faerie’s tithe to Hell is paid, and Bear shifts her focus to the nature of damnation. By the end, Ink and Steel feels like three books under one cover.
This problem may result from Ink and Steel being half a novel. Rumor has it the book is the first part of a single novel published in two volumes, the second of which is Hell and Earth: The Stratford Man, Volume II. Certainly, when you read Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth back-to-back in that order, the restless focus resolves into a logical structure.
Reading the two volumes as one never quite makes Shakespeare’s conversion to bisexuality convincing. But, if you put that aside and take the books as a single novel‑-as a whole‑-they work wonderfully.
Cynthia Ward (http://www.cynthiaward.com) has sold stories to Sword & Sorceress 24 (Norilana Books, http://norilana.com/), Asimov’s SF Magazine (http://www.asimovs.com/), and other magazines and anthologies. Her reviews appear regularly in Kobold Quarterly (http://www.koboldquarterly.com/) and Sci Fi Wire (http://scifiwire.com/index.php), and irregularly elsewhere. She publishes the monthly Market Maven e’newsletter (http://www.cynthiaward.com/maven.html), which covers market news in the science fiction, fantasy, and horror fields. She is working on her first novel, a futuristic mystery tentatively titled The Stone Rain. With Nisi Shawl, Cynthia coauthored the writing manual Writing the Other: A Practical Approach (Aqueduct Press, http://www.aqueductpress.com/conversation-pieces.html#Vol8), which is based on their fiction diversity writing workshop, Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction (http://www.writingtheother.com/).