This is part of the Promethean Age –series and the first book in the Stratford Man duology.
I read first the two Promethean Age books which were set in the modern US and Faerie (“Blood and Iron” and “Whiskey and Water”) because I’m, well, anal about reading order and these two were released before Stratford Man duology. Now I kind of regret it because “Ink and Steel” gives a lot of background to the world and some of the characters in the other duology.
I liked this book probably even more than the previous two. Its atmosphere is just as dark and the characters go through horrible events and suffer a lot. So, it should be a book I don’t like but there’s something there that can make me continue to read and even enjoy it. Maybe it’s my fascination with faeries and the cold, heartless Court they have here. Maybe it’s the lush writing. I know I like the historical period but I don’t know enough about the reign of Elizabeth I to really get the most out of it. Probably it’s the combination of characters, writing style, and setting.
The main characters are William Shakespeare and Kit Marley who is also known as Christofer Marlowe. Here, Will is a poor playwright and actor who works in London and struggles with the beginning of palsy. His wife and three children live in Stratford. His wife Annie isn’t happy about it but has no other choice. Will is also Kit’s very good friend and they help each other to write.
Kit almost dies from a dagger blade to his eye. He wakes up with a dark haired woman whom he slowly realizes is Morgan Le Fay. Morgan is a Queen of Faery and the sister of the reigning Queen, the Mebd. Even though Kit has been saved, he can’t return to a mortal life. Instead he is bound to Morgan and gets an immortal life in the heartless Faerie Court. But he can travel for a short time to mortal world and influence things there. Kit was a spy and a witch to Elizabeth’s loyal men, the Queen’s Men, who battle their enemies anyway they can. Publicly with words and with plays, and not so publicly with steel, blackmail, and spying. Kit feels that he still has a lot to do. But since he’s gone, so to speak, the Queen’s Men have to find another playwright to work his magic to the hearts of the audience. Kit guesses that they will try to recruit Will and he would very much like to prevent that because he thinks that Will doesn’t have the ruthlessness needed for the job.
But Kit is already too late. One of Will’s friends introduces him to Elizabeth’s spymaster, who is publicly thought to be dead, and his inner circle. Will has no choice but join. A whole new world of magic and espionage opens up to him.
Kit visits Will and gives him advice. They also send letters to each other about the sensitive political situation with an elderly Queen without an heir, and about the plays. Kit becomes the lover of both Morgan and her son Murchaud the Black, and is sucked in the complex machinations of the Court.
Bear has made a wonderful mix of fact and fiction, history and fairy tale, plays and mythologies. The book is littered with short quotes from both Shakespeare and Marlow which work well to establish the historical context and feel as well as a feel of the characters who wrote them. The whole time I wished that I knew more about the time period than what I could find in Wikipedia.
There a send of sadness and perhaps even doom around the characters. And yet they have choices and they do what their heart tells them to do. Well, the human characters have, at any case.
I believe most of the human characters are historical ones: Elizabeth I, Earl of Essex, spymaster Walsingham. Some of the mythological characters have also appeared elsewhere first. Morgan Le Fay is, of course, from the Arthurian legends. The Puck from Shakespeare. I also got the feel that Bear don’t like Lancelot much.
The strength of the story lies in the strength of the raw emotions of the characters. Love, hate, jealousy, lust, willingness to sacrifice oneself for another. They are contrasted against the cold Fae who seem to be able to feel only pain, if even that.
Bear uses somewhat archaic English with lots of “thees” and “thous”. Thankfully, it’s still understandable even to a foreigner like me.
Overall: I can’t wait to read the next one. I hope Bear can continue the series.
Oh, yes. The book contains romance and sex between men.