It's always delightful discovering another author in one's favourite genre whose entire oeuvre you want to read after finishing just one book.
Blood and Iron begins in media res, with an agent of Faerie--the Seeker of the Daoine Sidhe--and an agent of humanity--the Promethean Club's Matthew Szczegielniak--chasing the same quarry: a faerie changeling. After introducing us to these two main characters, the book pulls back in scope and reveals the centuries-old conflict between Faerie and the Promethean Club over the fate of the mortal world.
I say "main characters" because it's hard to tell who the "good guys" are in this book. There are times when I hated Matthew and times when I hated the Seeker. I praise Elizabeth Bear for her ability to establish such moral ambiguity. Although she addresses rather tired motifs for fantasy, such as the decline of "old gods" and their replacement with a "new era" (i.e., the death of Faerie and the rise of the mortal world), Bear employs the motif effectively and turns it into a compelling theme.
In addition to her ability to create complex characters, Bear's got a nice ear for dialogue. None of it feels stilted, even the formal tones of the faeries. Unfortunately, much of the dialogue feels like filler, and there are times when I don't entirely understand what's going on. And that brings me to...
...the mythology of Blood and Iron. Bear draws from a global coffer of sources, notably Arthurian legend and faerie tales. She integrates them well, for the most part, but it can become a cacophony of mythology at times. It isn't the synthesis of these myths that irks me so much as how Bear uses it, however.
Just when I thought I had the rules of Blood and Iron figured out, Bear would introduce another element that caused my understanding to vanish. This was not a pleasant feeling. For example, take the antagonist, the Dragon. The Dragon is shrouded in mysticism, and the main characters bow to a complex set of rules and requirements involving her. Any time a character speaks about these rules, the reasoning is cryptic and never straightforward. Even with some human (or at least part human) characters sharing their thoughts with me, I never achieved the same level of comfort I felt with, say, the rules of the Faerie Court in Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files series.
The ending of the story was anticlimactic. I won't reveal too much, other than that the climax occurs during an epic battle, but this doesn't affect the main characters all that much. The Merlin, who is an important figure in the middle third of the book, is marginalized and shunted off to the side.
While I'm very critical of the book in this review, I did enjoy its premise, if not the execution. That's why I'll read more of Bear's work, particularly this series. Bear's a talented writer with extremely creative ideas--I'm intrigued by what I've read about subsequent books in this series (such as Ink and Steel<), but I want to read them in order. Hopefully her use of mythology (or at least my comprehension of that use) will improve, allowing me fully immerse myself in the world of her Promethean Age rather than simply being a spectator.