So this appears to be the last book, at least for now, of Elizabeth Bear’s Promethean Age series. The series is actually two loose duologies: Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water are set in the modern day; Ink and Steel and this book are part of the Stratford Man duology, set in a Faerie-infested Elizabethan England. As my previous reviews of books in this series make clear, I am incredibly ambivalent. Bear’s commitment to detail is obvious, but the sheer intricacy and convoluted nature of her plots make these novels somewhat of a chore. Ink and Steel alleviated that by way of setting: I was just utterly fascinated by the way Bear took familiar historical figures, like Shakespeare and Marlowe, and weaved them into her complex tapestry of war and intrigue among Faerie, England, and Hell.
Hell and Earth concludes the story of Kit Marlowe, dead poet and spy now living in Faerie, and William Shakespeare, master playwright and sorcerer loyal to England and to Elizabeth. Marlowe and Shakespeare square off against members of their own Promethean Club, which has fractured into various factions who are all vying for power and prestige. Bear mixes fact with fantasy quite liberally—the end of the book includes an Author’s Note outlining where she altered the historical record or embellished it, which was quite a bit. Marlowe, of course, is very much alive, albeit somewhat worse for wear. The King James Bible becomes a poetic masterpiece of magic. And Shakespeare becomes instrumental in defeating the Gunpowder Plot. (From my own reading on the subject—i.e., an intense ten-second session of Googling—it seems like Shakespeare was connected to many of the conspirators, which makes sense, but did not play so large a role in defusing the conspiracy.)
It has been over two years since I read the previous book in this series, so I am somewhat foggy on the details! That didn’t work to my advantage as I read Hell and Earth, which is intimately connected to Ink and Steel—they are very close to being a single book. Of course, this didn’t do much for my opinion of the story or the plot, both of which are hard to follow. In particular, Bear’s idea of exposition is somewhat loquacious but unhelpful: the characters say a lot, but I don’t comprehend much of it. This did not become problematic until the climax, where understanding the actions of Lucifer is central to understanding the events. (I still don’t know what was really going on there, and if you feel you can explain it to me, please comment!) So there were parts of this book that I didn’t skim but I felt as if I had skimmed. I think this is how I felt like much of the first two Promethean Age books (except I distinctly remember disliking those books as well, which isn’t quite the case here). I hope that I have established enough “street cred” as a reviewer to make these complaints meaningful and more than just idle whining. There is a plot to Hell and Earth, but its complexities escape me.
In fact, reading this book was kind of like dunking my head underwater and holding my breath while I travelled back in time four hundred years. Bear portrays the setting in a very interesting way: her visual descriptions are sparse, but her use of language and description of the relationships between characters more than make up for this. In the end, what we get is a very conceptual and emotional grasp of England at the beginning of the seventeenth century: Elizabeth’s power is waning, and after she dies, a Scottish king assumes the throne. There’s a great deal of uncertainty, particularly when it comes to religious freedom and the growing influence of the Puritans. Oh, and don’t forget the plague. Nasty stuff, that.
If, like me, you are partial to this period of English history, and especially interested in fantastic portrayals of Shakespeare and his literary contemporaries, then these two books hold something for you. Bear has done her research, even though she often deviates from history for her own purposes. Whatever background knowledge one brings to the book will only serve to augment the experience; for those with little knowledge, it might seem heavy on the name soup, but it will still be an interesting glimpse into a history that never was.
I wish I could provide a more pertinent review of Hell and Earth. It deserves one. There are some great themes here: Marlowe’s love for and loyalty to Will are tested; Will himself must choose between Elizabeth or England; and we glimpse the burdens of ruling Faerie or Hell. There are some deep moments to this book, the kind of weighty moments that only happen when there is an extensive, enchanting mythology to rely upon. All these details are excellent, but they also create a lot of noise, and that’s where my memories of this book begin and end.