The Stratford Man (Ink and Steel / Hell and Earth)

Reviewer: Kevin Riggle

Author: Elizabeth Bear

Published: 2008

Reviewed: 2010-01-11

Publisher: Roc

Elizabeth Bear's "The Stratford Man" is one story contained in two
volumes, respectively titled "Ink and Steel" and "Hell and Earth," set
in Elizabethan England. It is part of her Promethean Age series
concerning the battle of the human Prometheus Club against the forces
of Faerie, and the prequel to her modern "Blood and Iron" / "Whiskey
and Water" duology. I really quite enjoyed it, though it took me a
couple months to read, mostly because of the distraction of school, so
I did have to spend some time refreshing my memory which titles (Earl
Foo, Duke Bar) went to which characters whenever I picked the books up
after a week or two's hiatus, and the bulk of the reading happened
over Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations. Thankfully Bear has, as
she says in her afterword, "tried to limit courtesy titles to one per
customer, for clarity," so I actually stood a chance of regaining the
thread of the plot with relatively little re-reading. That said, I
advise blocking out some time in which to read these, because they're
books like a good meal, and reward the time spent to savor them.

But I get ahead of myself. The books concern the adventures of one
Christopher Marlowe, playmaker and spy for Her Majesty Queen
Elizabeth, saved from death at the hands of some rather disreputable
associates by the Fae for their own purposes, and his replacement in
our iron world, one William Shakespeare, who finds himself quickly
sucked into the machinations, mundane and other-worldly, surrrounding
keeping (or not-keeping) Queen Elizabeth on the throne. The focus of
the books is not on the magic involved ("All stories," Bear tells us,
"are true," but beyond that the details of how magic works in her
world are not ever really specified), but instead on the relationships
between the characters and how their efforts, magical and otherwise,
to support the Queen's rule affect their lives and interactions.
Ultimately Marlowe discovers that he has been made the linch-pin in
his enemies' plot to destroy the English monarchy (which sustains and
is sustained by the Faerie Queen's rule), and he must decide how much
he is willing to sacrifice to his Queens' cause.

Marlowe is an interesting character, with many lovers and many
scrapes, and his emotional journey is the core of the story. (Bear
continues to write the only sympathetic bisexual male characters I'm
aware of in dead-tree fiction (excluding for a moment "Torchwood"
novelizations, none of which I've read), and she writes them very
well.) Shakespeare is no less well-developed a character, though, and
his friendship with Marlowe and his relationship with his wife Anne
are rich and detailed. Bear has a knack for the telling detail, and I
found myself rereading whole pages a couple times to make sure I
caught everything. Oftentimes her characters expose their feelings
through subtle gestures, nods and half-smiles and almost-unconscious
flinches, which she manages to capture without bogging the story down,
showing rather than telling, and this gives her worlds and characters
a sense of living, breathing reality that I really enjoy. Often the
characters' subtle behaviors will foreshadow by many chapters their
admittance of and in some cases their recognition of their feelings,
if they are explicitly revealed at all, or some mythical reference is
made early in the book which becomes important late in the book, and
for me part of the "game" of Bear's books is catching those cues,
making the symbolic connections, and watching them develop over the
course of the story. And though I focus on the character development,
there's no shortage of sword-fighting, romance, intrigue, and
derring-do in the books to keep the plot ticking alone.

Elizabethan England feels (to this reader) faithfully rendered without
obscuring the story in a cloud of perfectly accurate "prithee's" and
"Godswot's." (Bear in her afterword calls this "nature-identical
Elizabethan flavoring," and it serves her purpose to evoke the era.)
She does preserve a couple linguistic oddities of the era, primarily
the breaking-down of the distinction between the formal "you" and the
informal "thou," to interesting and character-building effect. It's
clearly a well-researched book, but it doesn't assault the reader with
the results of that research---I found it in fact whetted my appetite
for more historical understanding of the period and experience of the
plays referenced.

I really highly enjoyed "The Stratford Man," and I recommend it if you
are at all interested in Elizabethan England, historical fantasy,
secret history, or well-built worlds and well-characterized people.