Elizabeth Bear’s first two novels of the Promethean Age, Blood and Iron
and Whiskey and Water
, are, in my mind, absolutely brilliant. These books are to what is often called urban fantasy as Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing
is to a Harlequin romance. Not that there's anything wrong with the standard urban fantasy book (I read several series in this subgenre most avidly) or with Harlequin romances (not my cup of tea, but clearly they offer satisfaction to a great many people). But Bear's books, although unarguably fantasy, and clearly set in a modern urban setting (at least those portions that take place on Earth, and not in Faerie), are something quite special indeed.
As with many of Bear’s novels, there’s almost too much going on to even being to state a simple premise, over-arching plot or singular theme, but one can begin by saying that the universe of The Promethean Age is one where Earth and Faerie, Heaven and Hell, are real… places. Dimensions, overlapping and intertwined worlds, or something like that. The Earth is much as we know it, except that in the places that no one ordinarily looks to closely at, there are Magi, many of them members of the Prometheus Club, an organization which has for centuries waged a war with the realm of Faerie for the control of Earth. But neither the human Magi nor the otherworldly folk of Faerie can be said to be monolithic blocs, and there are power struggles between factions of the Magi and factions and courts of Faerie. And of course, various parties have various allegiances with Heaven and Hell – and not necessarily the ones one might expect.
Some reviewers have suggested that Bear has researched her material a bit too deeply. Certainly the more one is familiar with folk ballads, history (particularly the Elizabethan period), world mythology, other literary interpretations of the realm of Faerie and of the relationship between God and Lucifer, Heaven and Hell, Arthurian myths, and sundry other related fields of interest, the more one are likely to find in these books that delights with a fresh perspective on familiar characters and ideas. But the use of all of these stories, of differing degrees of presumed truth and cultural influence, is absolutely key to what Bear is doing with these books, because one of the underlying themes in the Promethean series is all about the consequences of the act of creation and the role of the imagination in creating and shaping reality.
As for me, I thought these two books were among the best things I read in 2008. I'm currently reading the next duology in the Promethean novels, Ink and Steel
and Hell and Earth
, and if anything, these are even better than the first.
Edit: Since I wrote this brief comment on my reaction to Blood and Iron
and Whiskey and Water
, the racial tropes Bear uses in exploring another of her themes in these books - issues of bondage,servitude and obligation - have been critiqued by several readers of colour as problematic. Bear herself has not handled the critiques or the discussions that spread out from her responses particularly well. (For context on this debate, which has come to be known as RaceFail 09, please see this post
for a very long list of pertinent links, including links to some timelines and summaries.)
I agree that the tropes are problematical. My reading of the text is that Bear was attempting, among many other things, to deconstruct these racialised tropes as part of her exploration of binding and servitude. Speaking as a person with white privilege, I think that she was successful in this to some degree, certainly enough that I was encouraged by the book alone to think about these issues. But I am not a person of colour, it is not bodies that look like mine that are being used in the text to do this deconstruction, so the text had no power to anger or injure me. It was easy for me to read a text written by a white author that made use of these tropes, and wait for her to show me what she intended in making use of them.
Moreover, the author was working primarily with myths that were drawn from my home culture, one in which concepts of binding spells and geasa and other, similar tropes are common and not racialised, and in my privilege I did not think about how the use of explicitly racialised characters and tropes would affect people of colour.
I am not detracting my statement that these books were among the best that I read in 2008, but I am acknowledging that there are serious issues of cultural appropriation and how to write racialised characters and situations to be considered in approaching this text, and that it should not have been easy for me not to see these issues up front. I need to be a more careful reader where race is concerned.