Blood and Iron

Reviewer: Kevin Riggle

Author: Elizabeth Bear

Published: 2006

Reviewed: 2009-02-16

Publisher: Roc

I quite enjoyed this book. If you're tired of tight-pantsed vampires
and werewolves in your urban fantasy, and long for something grittier,
more realistic, with more action and less angst (but no less emotion),
then you'll likely enjoy this book too.

It's a rich book, like a really good chocolate or a fine port -- I've
described this book to some people as "the longest 400-page book I've
ever read," for the density of its plotting. The action is rife with
symbolic and metaphorical freight, of which the characters are well
aware, as much of Elizabeth Bear's work seems to be. The characters
often understand things without letting you in on the secret, so if
you're the kind of person who enjoys puzzling over the details, trying
to figure out how everything is interconnected, you'll find a lot to
gnaw on here. Rest assured that if you'd rather not engage so deeply,
the book is still a lot of fun---the plot moves along at a brisk pace,
everything hooks up nicely, and Bear's world and characters are vivid
and varied.

All this, and I haven't yet told you what the book is about. At the
metaphorical level, it's a meditation on good and evil, power and its
responsible use, and what it means to be human. More concretely, it
follows Elaine Andraste, a mortal woman enslaved to the Queen of the
Daoine Sidhe (one of the two-and-a-half factions in Fairie), who
steals away half-fae children from the moral realm for her mistress;
her former lover, Keith Macneill, the son of the leader of a pack of
werewolves; and Matthew Sczegelniak, a human mage of the Prometheus
Club (a group formed to combat the Fae's incursions into the mortal
world) living in present-day New York City. Now there is come into
the world a Merlin -- a person, one to every twenty-five generations,
who is magic incarnate -- and Seelie and Unseelie and Promethean all
desire to persuade the Merlin to join them. The Queen of the Daoine
Sidhe has named an heir. Mist, the Mother of Dragons, has chosen a
Dragon Prince -- as Elaine describes it,

The Prince is always a drighten, a warlord. He comes in a time of
turmoil and changes everything. Unites the beleaguered against
their foes, pays some terrible price through his own greed or
shortsightedness or cruelty. Is betrayed by someone who should love
him, and dies bloodily.

The Prometheus Club binds Fairie to Earth with iron, meaning to go
into Fairie and take back the children stolen away, and a battle is
joined---but who the fighters are, where the battle is fought, and how
they live out their destinies all depends on how and how well the
factions can be united, and a leader found.

Bear's characters are all richly drawn with a palette of grays -- no
black-and-white Good and Evil absolutes here, even when emissaries of
Hell are involved. Even the unhumans reflect some aspect of humanity,
warped and distorted in an interesting way. This is the first of
Bear's Promethean Age books---at this time there is a direct sequel to
this one, Whiskey and Water, and two others set in Elizabethan
England, Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth---but, if you're worried
about getting sucked into another Interminable Doorstop Fantasy
Series, rest assured that this book stands well on its own.

In short, Blood and Iron is an excellent dark urban fantasy, and if
you like moral ambiguity plus excellent world-building and character
development, you'll probably enjoy it.