Ink and Steel: A Novel of the Promethean Age
by Elizabeth Bear
Cover Artist: Paul Youll
Review by Sam Lubell
Roc Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780451462091
Date: 01 July 2008 List Price $14.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
It takes a certain amount of daring to make the main characters of your novel two of the most gifted writers in history – William Shakespeare and Kit Marley (known to us as Christopher Marlowe). But Elizabeth Bear not only dares this in Ink and Steel, she comes close to succeeding. Ink and Steel is the third book in her Promethean Age sequence, but while Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water are set in the modern age, this is a 16th Century prequel. Ink and Steel opens with the death of Kit Marley, a playwright and member of the secret Promethean Society, which uses the magic of Kit's writing to support the queen. Needing a new writer, they recruit Kit's former roommate, William Shakespeare. While suffering writers' block on Titus Andronicus, Will is also determined to find out the truth behind Kit's death and the secret traitor among the Prometheans. But Marley is not really dead, but half-blinded and taken into the lands of Faerie by Morgan le Fey, of the Arthur myths. He is able to occasionally visit Shakespeare, to help with both the writing and the spying. He also tries to obtain his freedom from Morgan, who has ensorcelled him. There's lots of court intrigue in both the Elizabethan and Faerie courts – fortunately Bear has supplied a list of the Principal Players with descriptions – a list that has to be read for Bear's wonderful descriptions like "Sadly, not appearing in this book because I did not have room for her" and "Dead (to begin with)".
There's lots of clever references to the plays of both writers – especially Doctor Faustus and A Midsummer's Night Dream (which the Devil said (to Shakespeare) he enjoyed it, before the playwright had even started it. Some of Shakespeare's characters, not all of them men – and his sonnets – were inspired by Kit. There's some interesting insights on Shakespeare's relations with his wife (mostly abandoned in Stratford while he writes in London).
However, the book does have several flaws. The first is clearly not the author's fault—this is part one of a two-book novel, clearly severed by the publisher as the second book Hell and Earth comes out just one month after this one. A fault that can be attributed to the author is the strong erotic element that near the end overwhelms everything else in the book as Kit has sex with Morgan le Fey, her son Murchaud, Will Shakespeare, and even Lucifer. Another problem is that all the politics around Elizabeth's court so crucial to the first two-thirds of the novel are mostly ignored once Shakespeare visits the Faerie court and are replaced with a variant of the Tam Lin myth.
The result is a book that is very well written but whose individual chapters work better than the book as a whole. It is very slow moving in spots and sometimes reads like two books – Shakespeare the Spy and the X-rated Marlowe In Faerieland – were jumbled together. This is still a good book, but considering the caliber of Elizabeth Bear's previous novels, this one was a bit disappointing. Still, this is only the first half of a two-part novel, it is entirely possible that the second volume can redeem these flaws in the first.