Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Tangled Web

Since I was one of the first thirty people to write Subterranean Press and say I wanted a free copy of Elizabeth Bear's novel Blood and Iron, I've been making my desultory way through it over the past couple of weeks. It's a new-fashioned fantasy in the style of Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, but with more details and complications (as it's not aimed at the young adult audience). Although I didn't mean to judge it by its cover, I do love the picture of the NYC public library with one of the lions coming to life. That scene happens early on, with Matthew Patrick Szczegielniak Magus's realization that if he needs some information, he can go to the library. But instead of going in, he stands out front to ask one of the concrete lions, who responds with a Sphinx-type riddle. This is one of those tales of magic in which you can control people and creatures if you know their true names, and several of them (in addition to Matthew's) are entertainingly unpronounceable--my other favorite is Uisgebaugh, who'd I'd be afraid of summoning if I cleared my throat just right.

The protagonist is a woman of many names and identities. She is introduced as the former Elaine Andraste, now the Seeker of the Daoine Sidhe, a half-fae creature of the Mabd, the Seelie Queen. As the story progresses, more of her identity is revealed until we understand her motives for giving her identity away and succeeding to the throne of Faerie. As Queen, she who was once called Elaine becomes heartless enough to use what she's learned from Morgan le Fay, wake Arthur of Britain and aim the Merlin and the Dragon Prince as they must be aimed for the survival of Faerie in the modern age. Unlike previous Faerie Queens, however, Elaine struggles with the necessity for heartlessness. She comes to understand why the Mebd forbid the singing of the ballad Tam Lin in her hall. This is the heart of the novel, as Elaine sees that "more than one version of a story could be true at once. And moreover, the stories of the past affect the future, and echo and repeat and replay themselves over and over again, in infinite variation, through courage and determination."

Matthew and Elaine are revealed to be focal points in a war over the continued existence of Faerie. Matthew and his fellow Mage Jane, Elaine's mortal mother, fight to make the mortal world "safe" from Faerie tricks, while Elaine fights to contain the destructive power that could be unleashed by her son Ian, heir to the throne of Faerie, and his father, the Dragon Prince. At the crossroads (New York's Times Square), Elaine learns that she can't entirely destroy the mortal Magi or make all things right in Faerie, so she sacrifices herself rather than make a choice between her mother or the Merlin. There are many parallels between the Faerie and the mortal world, but all the relationships turn on the answer to the riddle that Elaine gives Morgan le Fey when she asks her "What do you want, and what are you willing to pay to get it?" Elaine replies "Ian safe...and anything." This is the answer that all of the mothers in the story give, at least implicitly, but it is only Elaine who is willing to give up her soul and risk everything else she loves to make it happen.

At the climactic moment of the novel, Elaine and Jane meet each other face to face and realize that they are fighting on different sides of a war, but for the same principle. Jane says "diplomacy amounts to nothing; it all comes down to blood and iron in the end" and Elaine replies "don't misquote Bismarck at me" before asking her "are we burying enough here? Or are we just like all the bloody fools before us?" Jane answers "we're not different at all," which turns out not to be true because the former Elaine has a bigger vision than anyone around her--including her mother--and she is an able leader.

Despite the fact that I found some of the fairy-tale elements predictable and overly detailed, so that they weighed down the pace of the narrative, I developed an appreciation for the narrative structure of this novel as I continued to read. Each story expands and overlaps with the other stories until they become one big story, so big that it's hard to see it--or, I think, write about it--in any coherant way. It's a big tale, told by a novice, full of sound and fury.

I liked Blood and Iron enough that I plan to check out the next in Bear's series (called the Promethean Age) because the back cover of this one promises me that the central story in Ink and Steel is Shakespeare as Kit Marley. Maybe Bear will be more in control of her talent, able to highlight the threads of the plot without losing any of the intricacies that wind around it like the tangled and braided hair of her heroes.


Cschu said...

Sounds like fun! (BTW---I like the new color scheme in your blog.)

Karen said...

Every mention of Tam Lin reminds me of the book _The Dogs of Babel_ by Carolyn Parkhurst. Have you read it? The different possible meanings of the poem play a role in that tale, too.

Jeanne said...

Karen, I did read (and like) The Dogs of Babel. I didn't rememember Tam Lin particularly--it's been a while since I read it. I've read so many books lately that feature the tale or song that I'm starting to think it's an author meme.