Why, why did Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water precede this book?! Ink and Steel possesses the best qualities of its predecessors and few of their flaws. Elizabeth Bear's skill flourishes in an alternate Elizabethan England where Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare are agents for the Queen and have dealings with Fae.
By far, my reviews of the previous books singled out an overly-complicated mythology as the Promethean Age's major flaw. Ink and Steel retains much of the mythological basis present in the first two books, but it seems much less preoccupied about dancing around complicated rules. Only the teind, Faerie's seven-year tithe to Hell, plays a large role in this book, and that situation is easy enough to follow. There is no mention of the Dragon (yay) or Dragon Prince, and the concept of a Merlin appears only in passing.
Indeed, Ink and Steel benefits from a narrower focus and tighter, crisper storytelling. Now with fewer annoying human characters! Yes, I can actually like our two human protagonists, Marlowe and Shakespeare, something I had trouble doing with the human characters in the first two books. I credit much of this to the juxtaposition of Bear's fictitious Marlowe and Shakespeare with my own expectations for the characters based on what I know of their historical versions. Similarly, I quite enjoyed seeing Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (and the true author of Shakespeare's plays according to some) and Ben Jonson.
The conflicts in Ink and Steel are superior to the first two books in this series. As mentioned above, they are easier to understand, and on a level, far more personal. On one level, Ink and Steel is a love story; on another level, it's a political drama where words and songs, poetry and plays, are the weapons of choice. In leveraging the poignant verse of Shakespeare and Marlowe, Bear skilfully reinforces the latter theme.
Ink and Steel makes an important distinction between mortals and the creatures of Faerie and Hell, beyond the obvious differences in strengths and weaknesses. Marlowe and Shakespeare--who are as much legend to us as Morgan and Arthur are to them--are portrayed as brilliant, passionated, and flawed human beings. Yet at the same time, they possess qualities that the Fae envy. I feel like Bear was attempting to draw these conclusions in the first books, particularly with changeling characters, like Elaine the Seeker. However, it took her three tries to perfect the message.
So far I've only compared Ink and Steel to its two predecessors. How does it stand on its own merits?
As noted, Bear makes masterful use of the Elizabethan setting and characters. While your mileage may vary, I personally I have a weakness for historical fiction set in the Elizabethan era--particularly historical fiction done well. There are too many epistolary sections for my taste.
The narrative perspective of Ink and Steel is somewhat more detached than I'd like. That's not to say that we're devoid of glimpses into the hearts of our characters. But each "scene" is related in a very cursory way, with emphasis placed more on dialogue than description. However, I suppose it's necessary in order to preserve the pacing of the story, which takes place over several mortal years, and I wouldn't be surprised if Bear chose to do this to further emulate the structure of a play. Not that such reasons make it any better....
But I mean ... come on. William Shakespeare. Christopher Marlowe. Faerie. Hell. What's not to like? It's 400 pages of quality fantasy, none of which is set in New York, and none of which involves an amoral Dragon manipulating matters behind the scenes. Ink and Steel, owing to its setting, was the book that attracted me to the Promethean Age series; I chose to start at book 1 because I worried I'd like back story. Hopefully, this review will convince anyone similarly interested solely in The Stratford Man duology (this book and Hell and Earth) to skip right to Ink and Steel. You won't miss anything.