Author: Elizabeth Bear
Year: 2008
Publisher: Roc
Reviewer: Kevin Riggle

Elizabeth Bear's THE STRATFORD MAN is one story contained in two volumes, respectively titled INK AND STEEL and HELL AND EARTH, set in Elizabethan England. It is part of her Promethean Age series concerning the battle of the human Prometheus Club against the forces of Faerie, and the prequel to her modern BLOOD AND IRON / WHISKEY AND WATER duology. I really quite enjoyed it, though it took me a couple months to read, mostly because of the distraction of school, so I did have to spend some time refreshing my memory which titles (Earl Foo, Duke Bar) went to which characters whenever I picked the books up after a week or two's hiatus, and the bulk of the reading happened over Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations. Thankfully Bear has, as she says in her afterword, "tried to limit courtesy titles to one per customer, for clarity," so I actually stood a chance of regaining the thread of the plot with relatively little re-reading. That said, I advise blocking out some time in which to read these, because they're books like a good meal, and reward the time spent to savor them.

But I get ahead of myself. The books concern the adventures of one Christopher Marlowe, playmaker and spy for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, saved from death at the hands of some rather disreputable associates by the Fae for their own purposes, and his replacement in our iron world, one William Shakespeare, who finds himself quickly sucked into the machinations, mundane and other-worldly, surrrounding keeping (or not-keeping) Queen Elizabeth on the throne. The focus of the books is not on the magic involved ("All stories," Bear tells us, "are true," but beyond that the details of how magic works in her world are not ever really specified), but instead on the relationships between the characters and how their efforts, magical and otherwise, to support the Queen's rule affect their lives and interactions. Ultimately Marlowe discovers that he has been made the linch-pin in his enemies' plot to destroy the English monarchy (which sustains and is sustained by the Faerie Queen's rule), and he must decide how much he is willing to sacrifice to his Queens' cause.

Marlowe is an interesting character, with many lovers and many scrapes, and his emotional journey is the core of the story. (Bear continues to write the only sympathetic bisexual male characters I'm aware of in dead-tree fiction (excluding for a moment TORCHWOOD novelizations, none of which I've read), and she writes them very well.) Shakespeare is no less well-developed a character, though, and his friendship with Marlowe and his relationship with his wife Anne are rich and detailed. Bear has a knack for the telling detail, and I found myself rereading whole pages a couple times to make sure I caught everything. Oftentimes her characters expose their feelings through subtle gestures, nods and half-smiles and almost-unconscious flinches, which she manages to capture without bogging the story down, showing rather than telling, and this gives her worlds and characters a sense of living, breathing reality that I really enjoy. Often the characters' subtle behaviors will foreshadow by many chapters their admittance of and in some cases their recognition of their feelings, if they are explicitly revealed at all, or some mythical reference is made early in the book which becomes important late in the book, and for me part of the "game" of Bear's books is catching those cues, making the symbolic connections, and watching them develop over the course of the story. And though I focus on the character development, there's no shortage of sword-fighting, romance, intrigue, and derring-do in the books to keep the plot ticking alone.

Elizabethan England feels (to this reader) faithfully rendered without obscuring the story in a cloud of perfectly accurate "prithee's" and "Godswot's". (Bear in her afterword calls this "nature-identical Elizabethan flavoring," and it serves her purpose to evoke the era.) She does preserve a couple linguistic oddities of the era, primarily the breaking-down of the distinction between the formal "you" and the informal "thou", to interesting and character-building effect. It's clearly a well-researched book, but it doesn't assault the reader with the results of that research — I found it in fact whetted my appetite for more historical understanding of the period and experience of the plays referenced.

I really highly enjoyed THE STRATFORD MAN, and I recommend it if you are at all interested in Elizabethan England, historical fantasy, secret history, or well-built worlds and well-characterized people.