The Tempering of Men, Monette and Bear's second joint foray into the world of Iskryne, follows directly on from Companion to Wolves, which you will remember I was really rather appreciative of; and The Tempering of Men, its name aside, did nothing to lower my appreciation of the skill of either author involved, and indeed raised my awareness of the potency of the combination.

The characters of Tempering of Men are largely developed from those of A Companion to Wolves, with Isolfr taking a much more background role, as we focus instead on Skjaldwulf, Vethulf, and Brokkolfr as holdovers, and the new character of Fargrimr added to our central cast.  Skjaldwulf and Vethulf are both thrust forward and developed as greater characters in relation both to each other and to Isolfr, in a well-played piece of writing that develops a strange, powerful relationship between them, coming out of their strange relationship with Isolfr.  They're very different figures but, over the course of Tempering of Men, both are humanised and made more rounded in a way that was begun, but by no means completed in Companion..., and that continuance and completion is brilliant.  Brokkolfr, despite having a relatively minor role - largely about commentary and secondary-leaders, rather than himself a main character - is also a well-written, well-crafted figure; he's a sympathetic character who has a problem with his role, a problem he overcomes over the course of the novel and it's a role he grows into, growing as a character as he does.  Fargrimr is one of the most interesting characters of the novel in some ways; a "sworn-son" - a daughter of a sonless jarl, who acts as if a son in order to inherit - he's treated as a son throughout the novel, and a male; he acts as such and is described as such.  Not quite transgender, perhaps, but not far off, and certainly a well-written character and Skjarlwulf's reaction to him is brilliantly written.

The plot of the novel is divided; one part takes place following Skjaldwulf going south to deal with an incursion by the "Rheans" - a thinly-veiled analogue of the Romans - and the various political events spinning off from this; the other involves the day-to-day running of the heall.  The first plot is well-written and takes us into areas that the series so far hasn't gone, as well as bringing in some new ideas; we're actually seeing the South for the first time, and seeing how different it is to the North of Iskryne, and we're also seeing a very different view of the wolfcarls.  There's also a nice piece of debate between the ways of life of the Rheans and the Iskrynes; and Skjaldwulf is affected by these quite strongly, meaning we're seeing someone shaken in their faith in his way of life, and this is a fantastic piece of life.  The other plot is also quite nice - we learn more about the svartalfar, from their "dark elf" brethren who seem to, if anything, be more sympathetic than the svartalfar themselves, and we also see more of the day to day running of the heall, although this isn't anything particularly new to the series.  It is, however, an excellent counterpoint to the extraordinary events in the South.

In the end, then, The Tempering of Men is an excellent continuation of the series; less graphic than Companion to Men - although hardly non-graphic - it's a well-written, emotional and thoughtful but also thrilling novel which really moves along the plot; it also manages to have a conclusion whilst leaving the series open for its next instalment, a real problem for many second-novels-in-trilogies.  I'd recommend the Iskryne series strongly.
Tricks of London and Seven for a Secret, taken together, give us the earliest and last tales of Abigail Irene Garrett, one of Bear's protagonists in the New Amsterdam world (previously noted in New Amsterdam and The White City); they're an interesting study in the woman, and how she changes... and stays the same.  Because they're so closely linked, I'm going to review them together, with one paragraph on characterisation, and one each on the plots.  Some spoilers may crop up for New Amsterdam.

Bear's characters, as previously, are handled very well; what stands out here is the pairing of Sebastian and Abigail Irene.  Whilst Sebastian doesn't appear in Tricks of London, he is developed in Seven for a Secret quite significantly; here, what Bear has been hinting at for some time - the pain of losing a companion to age - is brought out to the forefront as Abigail Irene is near her death.  This gives him a certain added pathos and pain, and alongside the pain of having lost Jack in New Amsterdam, makes him an incredibly human character; and the effects of his age are well-portrayed and fantastic.  Abigail Irene is a very different story; her age changes her very little, leaving her stubborn, intelligent, incisive, uncompromising and all round a wonderful character.  Whilst I would like to see her more centre-stage in Seven for a Secret, her age makes that impossible, and the whole of Tricks of London is pretty purely centred on her to make up for it.  Tricks of London also brings in Sean Cuan, a DS with the Met; he's an interesting, if slightly two-dimensional, character who has a hint of mystery around him without any real substance to back it up, and exists largely as a foil for Abigail Irene.  On the other hand Seven for a Secret shows us Ruth, who is a much more interesting character; she is torn between duty and love, and has to make the choice between the two, and her whole character is well-written, driven and powerful; the hint at the end of the novella gives me hope for future writing in this 'verse featuring her.

Tricks of London is a relatively simple Jack the Ripper inspired crime drama; it introduces Abigail Irene in her youth and shows us things we have never seen before, but doesn't really do much surprising plot-wise - it's relatively pedestrian, although Bear's writing style makes the pacing work fantastically, with a definite movement and sense of impending something that really does add a huge amount to the suspense of the novellette.  Seven for a Secret, on the other hand, has a much better plot; it focuses on the possibility of a kind of pseudo-Nazi werewolf being developed by the Prussians after the invasion of Britain (yes, really). Sebastian and Abigail Irene are out to use this against the Prussians, whilst Ruth herself is one of these werewolves.  The story takes in all sorts of elements, from the Holocaust (not treated lightly, thankfully) to historical myths of the werewolf; it delves into the alternate-past of London in this 'verse, as well as giving us a well-paced and, in a way Tricks of London wasn't, deeply human story.

Overall, then, whilst Tricks of London  - probably in part due to its short length - was not quite up to what I've come to expect from Bear, Seven for a Secret was absolutely fantastic, and a very readable little novella.  Very enjoyable.
New Amsterdam, as the title implies, is set in the same world as The White City, and forms a series of linked novellettes (at a rough guesstimation of their length) that lay out much of what happened before that novella (and was published before it - my reading order is, in this case, unrepresentative of that intended by Bear).

The characterisation is universally excellent, subtle, and sweet; Sebastien is a thoughtful, intelligent, emotional and profoundly human vampire who I can't help but comparing with Genevieve of Kim Newman's Anno Dracula, as both share so many of the same characteristics, especially in their outlook on humanity and the brevity of human life.  The other characters are equally well-drawn; Jack Priest, with his jealous love of the vampire and his revolutionary views, is portrayed sympathetically but not flawlessly, and both the women - Abigail Irene Garrett and Phoebe Smith - are different, well-written, interesting characters with their own strengths and weaknesses (less so for Phoebe, but Abigail Irene is a powerful, interesting figure, with contradictions aplenty encapsulated within her).  The shifting background characters, who change from novellette to novellette, are also sketched well, and dealt with deftly to create nice, interesting figures for the reader.

The plot of each novellette forms part of a plot-arc, whilst also having its own resolution; they each follow the same form - body discovered, and Sebastien (in all but the first novellette) aided by Abigail Irene solve the murder over the course of the story, abetted and aided by various political factions and pressured with various underhand means.  It is less repetitive than it sounds - Bear has a variety of different atmospheres, and whilst the first story of the collection is relatively mundane and the last somewhat horrific and gothic, they're all dealt with well and showcase a great range on Bear's part; however, the political arc is much less strong, and seems to be a little disjointed, not only by the novellette-structure but also by the changes in the characters, which seem abrupt and extreme at times.

Overall, whilst this isn't a perfect collection, it is very good, very enjoyable and very strong; I'd recommend New Amsterdam, if you can get your hands on it, to fans of Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple, but also to fans of steampunk and vampires.  Bear really does have a talent for enjoyable, well-written fiction and this certainly showcases that.
Whiskey and Water is the sequel to Blood and Iron, and also to the (later-written) Ink and Steel/Hell and Earth duology (The Stratford Man).  Elizabeth Bear's consistent command of politics, sex, power, magic, story and character is really well played with here, perhaps most strongly out of any of the four novels of the sequence of the Promethean Age, appropriately so as we reach the climax of the subplots of various characters.

Our massive cast of characters is perhaps the least wieldy I have ever seen in a novel on first glance - especially given the multiple roles most of them have, revealed over the course of the novel, the gender-bending some of them do, the various odd subplots involved, and the Christian and pagan mythologies so mingled.  That many (though hardly all!) of the characters have been introduced before - and Kit makes a wonderful return, which pleases me no end, as I'm a fan of the poet - doesn't make it less hard to get a grip on at times, with double-dealings, confusions, interlocked plots, and strange betrayals interweaved so tightly it's hard to work out who the characters really are on occasion.  However, we still get wonderful characters out of this; from what could have been a morass of confusion Bear forms clear characters and individuals, with only a few exceptions, each person with their own style and mannerisms (most obviously Kit, a man out of his time by half a millenium!)

The plot is even more complex than the above makes it sound, because in reality there is less a single plot than a number of interlinked subplots; all come together in a set of duels at the climax of the novel, but the various things going on - like a set of dominoes, knocked over by flicking the first - seem so chaotic until the end, so disconnected, so strange and utterly unentangled, that the novel as a whole seems a little disorganised.  The fact that so many characters are involved with so many plots is a weakness, I find, as - especially with characters involved in more than one plot, and plots being unclear from the start, with mysteries and redundancies in various schemes - the novel is incredibly hard to follow on occasion, with characters even seeming to work directly against their own interests.  However, the themes which tie the stories together, and the climax which does demonstrate how everything was originated and seems to have worked, do lend a little coherence - if retrospective - to the novel, with some brilliant Christian imagery; Bear, who (as far as I can tell) is not a Christian, has written one of the best and most sensuous Christian parables I've ever read.

Overall, then, whilst a Byzantine novel to read at times, with a cast of characters to rival George R. R. Martin (in far fewer pages!), Whiskey and Water is a fitting end to Bear's Promethean Age sequence, well written and worked out, and beautiful to read.  I'd recommend taking time over it, as it will reward the investment... and as it will help clear up some of the complexities of the plot, but I would definitely recommend the whole Promethean Age to any reader.
 Blood & Iron is the first novel in Bear's Promethean Age cycle, of which I have previously read The Stratford Man - Ink & Steel and Hell & Earth.  As I said in reviewing White City, I plan to reacquaint myself with Bear's work, and that starts here; and an appropriate place to start, in some ways, with a novel showcasing many of the hallmarks of Bear's work in typical style and beauty.

The cast of Blood & Iron is large - with a little crossover with Ink & Steel, as Morgan, the Mebd, and Murchaud all feature; but largely we see a new cast (or perhaps they're old cast returning, as whilst Blood & Iron is set nearly half a millennium later, it was also first to be published...).  That new cast is really well fleshed out and developed, with great personalities and, despite their Fae (or Fey. Or Faerie. I think all of the above are used at difference times) nature in most cases, very human emotions; Elaine, Keith, Carel, Whiskey, Matthew Magus and (relatively minor as a character, but really cool) Kadiska are great individuals, trapped by necessity, circumstance and the machinations of others.  Each is betrayed and betrayer, and each has some really unique elements - they've got different priorities, styles, thoughts, actions, and personalities, to the point that the reader does feel it when one seems to be going to die or be betrayed (oh, the betrayals...).  Bear's characters really live and breathe, and Blood & Iron has a strength in its characters that is rare.

Bear's plot is deeply complex and confusing at first, but actually straightens out even as twists and tangles become more apparent.  Blood & Iron is a novel of conflicting loyalties and emotions, conflicted actions and reasons, and those play out through the plot.  Bear, of course, has no clear right and wrong, no good and evil - we have characters on both sides of this war, and one neutral to it, and even the side of the Devil is painted as more about love ("What does he [Lucifer] want?" "What we all want. The love of a just and generous deity. Not to be cast out of heaven, and the sight of God.") than anything else; yet this love creates violence.  The ties of prophecy are strong in this novel, yet nothing plays out as one might expect - Bear tends to resist straightforward interpretation or action, although she does seem heavily influenced by Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol.

All in all, the world Bear creates and the characters that people the pages of Blood & Iron are beautiful and terrible, grim and wonderful; I heartily recommend the book, if you're willing to emotionally invest in it.  It's an investment that Bear really does reward.
This historical urban fantasy is beautifully written and intelligently wrought, as I've come to expect from Elizabeth Bear's work.  The White City's combination of urban fantasy tropes, beautiful descriptions of its world, and strong characters combine to create a novella that is beautiful and wonderful, even whilst its small scope allows for a compactness that a novel might lose out on.

It's been a shocking length of time since I last read some Bear, and this is a refreshing blast of her typical characterisation: Vivid, vivacious, sexual, intensely human, and intensely real, even the wampyr characters are portrayed so brilliantly, in their cynicism, their age, their eternal outlook, that the story works brilliantly.  Our large(ish) and varied cast are really brilliant - Sebastian at the core of the novel, with Phoebe, Jack, Abby Irene, Inspector Dyachenko et al. - with different outlooks, viewpoints, ideas, voices (Bear's broken English of Irina as she is learning the language, and of Jack, translated from the Russian, works really well, especially); that each character has such an individual personality and we can see why each of them thinks the way they do is stunningly well executed on Bear's part.

The White City is also blessed with a beautifully realised setting; Moskva is a real, beautiful, stunning city from Bear's descriptions, rather than the pastiche of onion-domes and grime that it often becomes in fiction.  Whilst Bear skips around neither of these, The White City merges them and creates from the potential pastiche a rounded, vital, interesting, and indeed living city; this skill is a deeply impressive one, on every level, and Bear deserves a lot of praise for how she sidesteps and incorporates clichéd images into something so new-feeling.

Finally, the Holmes-like plot is really well realised.  The mixture of elements - radicalism, romance, art, longevity of the wampyrs, murder, investigation and corruption - is really well handled, with different plotlines in different timelines coming together to give a resolution to each, in somewhat different ways, which creates an incredibly beautiful, sensuous reading experience, with plot-twists and sudden changes of pace being really well executed, like an expert racing driver taking a curve on a track he knows well smoothly, and the action (both romantic and violent, or at least as violent as it ever gets) is excellently portrayed, taking the reader's breath away.

The White City is, all in all, a tour-de-force, and a real incentive for me to get re-acquainted with Elizabeth Bear's work.


Squeaking of the GrimSqueaker....

February 2012

   1 23 4
56 7891011
12 131415 161718


RSS Atom

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Sep. 24th, 2017 04:59 am
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios