Hell and Earth: A Novel of the Promethean Age
by Elizabeth Bear
Cover Artist: Paul Youll
Review by Sam Lubell
Roc Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780451462183
Date: 05 August 2008 List Price $14.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
What your English teacher didn't tell you about Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe (aka Kit Marley), and other Elizabethan-age poets would fill a book. Well, two books actually as Hell and Earth is a continuation of Ink and Steel, which was the first volume of The Stratford Man (which in turn is part of her Promethean Age series) to the point of continuing the Act and scene numbers used instead of chapters. I found this second volume to be much better than the first with more of the political intrigue and less of the parts that read like Kit Marley slash fanfic.
Previously, the poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe, who had been taken into the Faerie court after his death and received magical powers from the devil, had fallen in love with William Shakespeare. Both playwrights were members of the Prometheus Club, using the magic of words to support the aging Queen Elizabeth. But some in the club use their magic to accumulate power for themselves, even if it means undermining the queen.
Hell and Earth begins almost as a series of episodes, Shakespeare and his friends are recruiting a team of poets and playwrights to translate the Bible, even though Queen Elizabeth has forbidden it, with Shakespeare saying that the queen will not live forever. Kit investigates which of the faeries killed Shakespeare's son Hamnet resulting in an interesting conversation between Shakespeare's faerie lover and his wife. Then Kit tries to kill the sorcerer Richard Baines who once raped him, and learns that Baines was not trying to kill him but keep him alive for some hidden purpose. Kit and Shakespeare, with the help of the Queen of the Faeries and Robert Cecil, expose a plot against Elizabeth by the Earl of Oxford, though this incident further ages the Queen. The scheming continues over who should succeed Elizabeth, with conflicts between Protestants and Catholics. This does not end when Elizabeth dies and King James takes over as James' wife is Catholic. Moreover, the legends around Elizabeth have grown so strong that "all queens are Elizabeth" and her death almost takes the Faerie Queen with her.
Ultimately, the significance of these events comes clear when the Earl of Salisbury (Robert Cecil) kidnaps Shakespeare to force Kit to come to his rescue. Kit is taken prisoner so that his sacrifice can help bring down the king and God himself. When Kit had been tortured earlier in his life, Baines had imprisoned an angel in his body and the Prometheans believe that by controlling Kit, they can control the angel, and by controlling the angel they can control God. And this is timed to go off with the gunpowder treason plot of Guy Fawkes and the killing of the ravens of the Tower of London (since one is the reincarnated King Arthur and there is a legend that if the ravens leave the tower, the kingdom would fall).
The personal relationships between the characters, especially Kit, take center stage in this book, as Kit is no longer able to bear the touch of mortals, yet still maintains a relationship with Shakespeare. Characterization continues to be a strong point along with the politics. Kit is a fascinating character who grows into his power in this volume. Bear's take on Shakespeare, who struggles with his palsy and the limits his faltering body places on his mind, is different from the usual "bard of Avalon" taught in school. Also, in our Christian-fundamentalist-dominated times, it is interesting to read a sympathetic take on Lucifer, one that ties him to the Greek Prometheus who brought fire to man (and the name Lucifer literal means light-bringing). The image of Lucifer having a lover's quarrel with God is a very different take on the simplistic good versus evil struggles that dominate so many fantasy novels.
Hell and Earth redeems the weaker elements of Ink and Steel, which is necessary to make sense of this book, making this two volume novel worthwhile reading. The poetry references were stronger in the first book and I could have used a bit more explanation in the author's note about what parts were true or not. Elizabeth Bear does have a wonderful line in the Author's Note about how "[I] don't consider it necessary to be any more faithful to Kit and Will than they were to assorted British Sovereigns not of the Tudor persuasion. Really, considering what they wrought upon various Edwards and Richards and maybe the occasional Henry or so, Kit and Will deserve whatever the Hell they get from me." Clearly, this is an author having fun with her n love with the written word and with the writers of the Elizabethan age, and this fun communicates itself the reader.