Whiskey and Water + Blood and Iron by Elizabeth Bear Review

Whiskey and Water is the second novel published in Elizabeth Bear’s series of the Promethean Age and should be considered as an independent sequel to Blood and Iron. The story of Whiskey and Water takes place about seven years after the events of Blood and Iron and it features many of the same characters – mostly in minor roles – with a decided emphasis on the magus Matthew Szczegielniak, formerly of the Prometheus Club.

Elizabeth Bear

Though it has been seven years since the great battle between the magi of the Prometheus Club and the forces of Faerie, the situation is far from resolved. Matthew’s treachery caused the Prometheans to fail, decimating their numbers drastically but Jane Andraste, arch-mage of the Prometheus Club, has not abandoned her cause. Instead, she has been busy recruiting new members while Matthew, crippled in both body and spirit, doggedly attempts his role as the protector of New York City despite the fact that he has lost the mastery of his magic.

Elaine still reigns as Queen of the Daoine Sidhe, a position for which she willingly sacrificed her human soul and thus her ability to love – a sacrifice that was motivated by a wish to shield her son Ian from the life-draining power of the White-horn Throne. Ian, however, covets the throne for himself and resents his mother for usurping his rights as the Mebd’s chosen heir. Elaine’s hold on the throne is a precarious one. Not only has she made an enemy of her son, she also has to counter the subtle machinations of Àine (the Cat Anna), Queen of the Unseelie fae.

When a young woman is found murdered in a particularly grisly manner, everything points to the killer as a creature of Faerie. In his self-proclaimed role as protector of New York Matthew is once again sucked deep into the political intrigues of both Faerie and the Prometheus Club. But those two are not the only players in this deep-laid game. The forces of Hell itself, led by Lucifer the Morningstar, seem to have a stake in this conflict. The various political alliances and configurations muddles the picture but as the story progresses it slowly becomes clear that there is more than one hidden player in this game, and that someone actively is seeking to manoeuvre Faerie and the Prometheus Club into another open confrontation while Hell remains divided among itself as Lucifer oscillates between either seeking forgiveness from God or waging an all-out war against Heaven.

As the plot thickens and the game deepens, Matthew allies himself with Christopher Marlowe, formerly of the Prometheus Club and lately of Hell – a move that forces him into a final confrontation with Jane Andraste and the subtle chains with which she had his magical talent bound for years on end. As the conclusion draws near, the various conflicts plays out in a series of duels – between Matthew and Jane, between two elemental water-sprites and between the arch-angel Michael and the champion of Hell – while the enigmatic sorceress Morgan le Fey watches from the sidelines.

Like its predecessor, Whiskey and Water is a very complex and fascinating novel that deals with a number of thorny and interrelated issues; in this instance the themes of absolution and redemption as well as those of seduction and temptation. It is especially the themes of absolution and redemption that appears to be at the core of the narrative. Thus Lucifer seeks forgiveness from God though his pride gets in the way. However, Lucifer’s wish for absolution is much less compelling than Matthew’s need for the same thing. In Blood and Iron Matthew sacrificed his brother Kelly for the Promethean cause and he has been haunted by his guilt ever since. His guilt is quite literally crippling and it is only when he is granted absolution – ironically the creature through which the sacrifice originally was made – that Matthew regains control of his magical powers.

The theme of redemption is closely tied to Elaine, who was a very prominent character in Blood and Iron, but who has become quite distant and aloof in Whiskey and Water. Elaine is an example of a character that has done great wrong from the very best intentions. She has wronged her son Ian by usurping the White-horn Throne – a choice she made in order to protect his essential humanity, but a choice she made without regard to Ian’s own wishes. Another character that Elaine has wronged in a very serious manner is the Kelpie Whiskey. In Blood and Iron, Elaine initially bound this Wild Fae to her will according to the laws of Faerie since it is a place where almost everybody is owned by somebody – a fact that was eminently illustrated by the knots in the hair of the Mebd, Faerie’s former queen. As Queen, Elaine has made it an issue that her hair is unbound – i.e. that she doesn’t bind her subjects to her will through magic – yet she fails to understand that her forced ensoulment of Whiskey has placed him in a form of bondage that goes deep enough to alter his very nature and thus the function he, as a water-sprite, serves within the context of the world. Thus for Elaine, redemption can only be achieved with the reclamation of her denied humanity and a renunciation of the White-horn Throne – two issues that are intimately connected.

Jane Andraste is another character in need of redemption but who, unlike Elaine, is unable to repent her actions. Jane’s offence is particularly egregious because she had seduced Matthew into a form of bondage that he was unable to recognize since she presented the chains that bound him as pieces of armour for his own protection. She purposely kept him ignorant – of the extent of his power and what he could do with it – so that she could control and use him for her own ends:

She had controlled him. Down to the breath he drew. He’d thanked her for it, and it hadn’t been enough for her.

This is a particularly insidious form of subjugation, one where the victim often becomes complicit with his/her own oppression – and Jane’s utter refusal to acknowledge her own culpability in this matter excludes her from any kind of redemption what so ever.

Whiskey and Water is, as said, a very complex and fascinating novel. It is, however, less accomplished than Blood and Iron. Firstly, the plot is convoluted to the point of the byzantine and it features so many players that it sometimes is quite difficult to keep track of all the details. Secondly, Bear breaks with the narrative focus on a few select characters that characterized Blood and Iron, opting instead for an omniscient POV that slips in and out of the minds of a very large cast of characters. I found this particular aspect of the novel extremely annoying as it not only added to the confusion of the byzantine plot but also made the story seem curiously unfocused. This technique also works to prevent a more in-depth characterization of the various figures. In this respect, Matthew and Whiskey are the most developed characters, mainly because they were featured prominently in Blood and Iron. However, I couldn’t help but regret that intriguing characters such as Morgan le Fey, Christopher Marlowe and Lucifer weren’t more developed though this particular problem might be due that their story is treated in The Stratford Man, a duology published as Ink and Steel and Heaven and Hell respectively. Thirdly, the story felt at times somewhat “unfinished”. However, this might be due to the fact that the Promethean Age series is far from complete. On Elizabeth Bear’s website I did notice that one of her planned novels in this series is titled Patience and Fortitude, two concepts that play a significant role for Matthew’s character in both Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water.

Suffice to say that Whiskey and Water doesn’t quite measure up to the excellent Blood and Iron. Despite its flaws Whiskey and Water is nonetheless a very good novel that not only deserves an attentive reader but also more than one reading. I really like that Elizabeth Bear constantly experiments in her writing, that she’s not afraid to take chances – and I would therefore like to point out that she is always very interesting to read, even when her experiments fail. Whiskey and Water is a must for anyone who enjoyed Blood and Iron– just as the Promethean Age series as whole should appeal to anyone who is interested in a fantasy that plays with history, mythology and literary tradition in an intelligent, original and entertaining manner.

liz bear

Elizabeth Bear is a very talented, imaginative and highly prolific writer, who, since publishing her first novel from 2004 (Hammered), already has 13 whole novels under her belt (though one of them, A Companion to Wolves, is co-authored with Sarah Monette). She has primarily written within the genre of science fiction (fx Dust and All the Windwracked Stars) but has recently begun making forays into the territory of fantasy and alternate history with novels such as New Amsterdam and the subject of the present review. Blood and Iron is also an instalment in a larger series of novels called the Promethean Age, of which four books (Blood and Iron, Whiskey and Water, Ink and Steel, Heaven and Hell) already have been published. These novels explore a slightly alternate Earth, marked by a secret, 500 year old conflict between Faerie and the Prometheus Club – a secret society of human magi that seeks to protect humanity from the wild and dangerous creatures of Faerie.

The novels of the Promethean Age is not published in a chronological order, rather each novel function as a stand-alone or as a part of a duology, exploring particular chapters in the centuries long war between the Prometheans and the fae. Thus Blood and Iron, which in part takes place in a late 20th century New York portrays one of the latter chapters in a very long story. It focuses on three characters and their interrelated stories, which may very well hold the key to final fate of Faerie and its connection to the human world.

Elaine Andraste is human but has lived in Faerie for years, bound to the will of the Mebd, the Summer Queen of Faerie, and forced to do her bidding. As Seeker of the Daoine Sidhe, Elaine is charged with seeking out human children of fae heritage (changelings) and bringing them to the land of Faerie, which is slowly but inexorably diminishing. Iron is fatal to the fae and their power has been leaking away slowly as the forces of industrialization, urbanization and modernization have yoked nature to the will of man in an ever increasing degree. Yet the uneven balance of power between the fae and the Prometheans might still tip in favour of Faerie and Elaine is given a task that will be crucial the continued survival of Faerie. Once every 500 years a Merlin is born to humankind. Named after the legendary wizard of Arthurian myth, the Merlin is not simply a wielder of magic – rather, the Merlin is magic incarnate! Elaine is charged with seeking out the Merlin of the present age and persuading her to join forces with Faerie against the Prometheans, who is also seeking the Merlin’s power. If she fails, the continued existence of Faerie is at risk and Elaine herself might lose something that is more precious to her than the fate of humankind.

Matthew Szczegielniak teaches English Literature at a local college in New York but he also leads a secret life. He’s a mage and a member of the Prometheus Club, dedicated to protecting the unsuspecting citizens of New York from the depredations of the fae. Like Elaine, Matthew is given the task of winning the Merlin and her power for the Promethean cause – a task that not only puts him on a collision course with Elaine, but also pitches Elaine into a direct conflict with her mother Jane Andraste, who is the archmage of the Prometheus Club. Matthew has made many sacrifices for the Promethean cause, haunted as he is but the way his brother was victimized at the hands of the fae, but when he learns that the final assault on Faerie hinges on an even greater sacrifice on his part he slowly begins to question the motives of Jane Andraste and the means by which she seeks to bring about a final solution of the “problem” of Faerie. Before the end, Matthew is forced to examine his own motives and finally choose between his loyalty to the Prometheus Club and his own moral integrity – and it is a choice upon which hinges both the fate of humankind and Faerie.

Keith McNeill is Elaine’s former lover and the father of her son Ian. He belongs to a clan of Scottish werewolves and is set to assume the kingship of his clan when his ailing father passes away – a responsibility that he is most unwilling to shoulder. At the same time he is trying to mend his strained relationship with Elaine, something that is further complicated when the Merlin identifies him as the Dragon Prince that is promised, which is grim fate indeed:

Twice in a millennium, a Dragon Prince is born. He is born to death and glory, to madness, to loss, and to eventual sacrifice.

The prince is always a drighten, a warlord. He comes in a time of turmoil, and changes everything. Unites the beleaguered against their foes, pays some terrible price through his own greed or shortsightedness or cruelty. Is betrayed by someone who should love him, and dies bloodily.

Keith suddenly finds himself thrust into a narrative pattern that has been defined by the stories of the Dragon Princes before him, of which King Arthur is the most legendary one. He has to assume the roles of war leader and sacrifice, constrained by a story that, despite individual variations, always plays out in the same way – as a tale of war, betrayal and sacrifice. The distinction between predestination and pattern is a fine one and the question remains whether Keith’s foreknowledge of the pattern will be sufficient to avert a grim and bloody destiny.

Blood and Iron is very much a novel about the power and structure of myth and legend, a theme that is deeply embedded in Bear’s vision of Faerie as a kind of living archive of the cultural memory of humankind. Legends, myth and stories are quite literally the fabric that constitutes the very nature of Faerie:

The ballads were the true history of Faerie, and a false one. They were true because stories have echoes and interplay and Faerie is the result of the tension between those. The pattern of a tapestry was not the substance of the strands. But pattern could be manipulated by how the strands were woven – which were pulled taut, which brought to the surface, which drawn beneath. And more than one version of a story could be true at once. And moreover, the stories of the past affect the future, and echo and repeat over and over again, in infinite variation, through courage and determination.

Like her vision of Faerie, Bear’s novel itself forms a vividly coloured tapestry woven from many different stories, legends and narrative patterns – something that is made abundantly clear with the numerous references to the ballad of Tam Lin (a folkloric legend from Scotland about a human man enchanted by the Queen of Faerie). It is, in fact, rather impressive how Bear manages to weave together the disparate mythical material (Faerie lore, Celtic and Christian mythology, Arthurian legend and werewolf mythos) into a seamless whole where each strand resonate with the others in a unique manner that nevertheless is rich with multiple variations in allusion and symbolism.

The Prometheus Club is one of the concepts that are particularly rich with various connotations from our cultural history. In Blood and Iron, the Prometheus Club is the primary opponent of Faerie and Bear explicitly links their fight against the fae with the forces of modernization and industrialization. Fx in the book, the Prometheus Club is given a pivotal role in ventures such as the transatlantic railroad system in America, exploiting it as a means to put a magical restraint of iron on the natural world from which the creatures of Faerie draw their strength (as many of the fae, in one or other manner, are embodiments of natural phenomena). In a wider metaphorical sense, the Prometheans thus represent the manner in which the modern world exploits the natural resources of the planet, but they also symbolize modernity at large – it is no coincidence that Bear places the origins of the Prometheus Club in the Renaissance, an age that many historians classify as the beginning of the modern world (the 16th century is, fx, commonly classified as “early modern”). Their name is in itself a powerful symbol. In Greek mythology Prometheus is the deity credited with creating mankind out of clay as well as stealing the gift of fire from the gods and giving it to man – an act for which he was punished severely. Prometheus is thus a symbol of progress and development while also functioning as a rebellious figure akin to Lucifer (who, incidentally, plays a prominent role in Whiskey and Water, the sequel to Blood and Iron).

Sacrifice is another pervasive them in Blood and Iron – sacrifice in the many different meanings of the term. Not only self-sacrifice, but also the sacrifice of the lives of others, the sacrifice of a soul, of love and happiness as well as the ancient belief that held the ruler as a sacrifice for the well-being of the land. Each of the main characters makes sacrifices, in one way or another, throughout the story. Keith has to come to terms with his pre-ordained role sacrifice, a circumstance that might give him the freedom to chose the manner in which makes it. Matthew goes through the agony of sacrificing someone dear to his heart for the “greater good” and the Mebd sacrifices her blood, pain and ultimately her life in order to ensure the vitality of Faerie. However, it is Elaine who makes the most chilling sacrifice of all – for the sake of her son – an act that makes her an incredibly tragic figure. She remains, in many ways, the primary focus of the story and I must admit that I found her to be one of the most interesting and appealing figures of the novel.

Elizabeth Bear is not only a very imaginative writer; she is also a very good stylist. Her prose is saturated with a vivid imagery that really breathes life into the world of Faerie. Furthermore, it is rich in allusion and dense in meaning, which is why this novel requires an attentive and patient reader. It is also a novel that will benefit from a second or third reading. The story is primarily written from the vantage point of a third person narrative, but Bear switches to a first person narrative at a crucial point in Elaine’s story. This is something that I generally am not too fond of, but this move has a rationale in relation to the actions of the character and it serves to underscore and make the import of Elaine’s sacrifice much more poignant and moving.

Elizabeth Bear is fast becoming one of my favourite writers and I found Blood and Iron a very impressive literary effort. The novel is both imaginative and erudite, conveying a vision of Faerie that is both vivid and enchanting while at the same time highlighting the dark and frightening currents that characterizes the medieval Faerie lore but that often has been edited out of its modern counterparts. Blood and Iron is a wonderful novel, but I must stress that it requires a somewhat erudite reader to tease out and appreciate all the mythological allusions and connotations. An index listing the various mythological figures and their legends would have been very helpful, especially for reader without an academic background in the cultural arts. Other than this very minor complaint I can find no fault with Bear’s novel, which comes highly recommended.