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Book cover art by Paul Youll.
Review © 2008 by Thomas M. Wagner.

Blood and Iron is as gorgeous as it is laborious. It's a sumptuously mounted urban fantasy, researched to a fault by author Elizabeth Bear, and featuring some of the most elegant and evocative prose she has ever composed. Bear has taken a premise numerous fantasists before her have explored — the transposition of the world of faerie into a modern backdrop — and treats it with the utmost literary gravitas, as if she set out to be Charlotte Brontë and the anti-Jim Butcher all at once. The result is a book not unlike one of those Merchant Ivory art films from the 1980's, in which extremely beautiful, wealthy and impeccably dressed aristocrats who hate each other intensely spend the entire story lounging around expensive and luxurious locations being coy and droll to one another.

The thing is, Merchant Ivory could make that kind of thing entertaining, especially if they threw Julian Sands and Helena Bonham Carter into the mix and let the sparks fly. Search Blood and Iron for sparks and you search in vain. Where the story wants drama, Bear gives us soap opera. Where it wants action and suspense...well, there, we're mostly left hanging. But the writing can be breathtaking, when it isn't being inexplicably self-indulgent. If anyone can explain to me why Bear chose to shift without warning from third person to first for the last 150 pages of the book, you might actually be a mage yourself.

I had much the same problem trying to enjoy Blood and Iron as I did Dust, and I think it comes down to how something in Elizabeth Bear's writing just ricochets off my tastes. No matter how well — and she always does it well — she constructs the worlds in which her characters move, there's a degree to which those characters manage to feel aloof. In Blood and Iron, the fault, I think, is that everyone is just distressingly bland, as if they've become so used to life as magical creatures of the otherworld that they're merely bored by it. This does not exactly engender a powerful emotional commitment from the reader. Always I felt as if these characters were talking around me, never letting me into their lives so that their crises became my own, so that I could share in their sense of desperation over the dangers that, I was constantly assured, were threatening their very survival.

It's a pity, because the story has what it takes to have been Bear's greatest. The title has relevance on a number of levels, too. The phrase "blood and iron" was made famous by legendary German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, in an 1862 speech promoting unification of all Germany's territories as the key to Germany's very survival. Here, the story concerns a turning point in a war between the courts of the Sídhe and the Prometheus Club, comprised of mortal mages bent on protecting humanity by wiping out the realm of faerie for good and all. Among other things, the Sídhe have a habit of abducting and turning mortal children, and the Prometheans have reduced their population substantially since their height in Elizabethan times. Iron is deadly to the Sídhe, and it will be by blood ties that they are saved.

Despite an ensemble cast, Bear's protagonist and main viewpoint character is Elaine Andraste, Seeker of the Daoine Sídhe. Seeker is a changeling, one of many abducted human children, and now torn between loyalties. She has been charged by her queen, the Mabd, to seduce and bind a human mage — not just any mage, but a Merlin, a veritable source of magic as opposed to someone who simply wields it. Both the Sídhe and the Prometheans want this source of power for the leverage it will bring them in their war. The Merlin turns out to be a woman, Carel Bierce, a musician and college professor, who is surprisingly unruffled at finding out who and what she is, and promptly blends into Bear's vast ensemble of magical bores, taking her sweet time and allowing herself to hear each side's sales pitches while indulging in the trappings of her new life.

Meanwhile the Sídhe seek an allegiance with a pack of werewolves from Scotland (!), as lycanthropes aren't damaged by iron. Seeker has an added stake here, as she and Keith MacNeill, the werewolves' heir apparent, have a son together, Ian, who is being groomed by the Mabd as her successor. Keith has another little issue to deal with: that he is set to become the Dragon Prince, one in a long line of fearsome warlords — whose ranks have historically included the likes of King Arthur and Vlad Dracula — who must...

...bla bla bla bla blah! What's frustrating about Blood and Iron is that it's one of these literary fantasies weighed down by ten tons of elaborate plot and chapter after chapter of mythic atmosphere, while failing to provide us with anything in the way of a hero or heroine to root for, so that we actually find it interesting to follow everyone's thorny relationships or care about their eventual fates. Matthew, a Promethean mage who is the chief viewpoint character for that side of the conflict, is given a personal motivation for his hatred of the Sídhe that's pure cliché: he's avenging his brother. As a heroine, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone less heroic than Seeker. She spends most of the story being stressed out, pissed off and flustered. Bear clearly wants a palpable sexual tension to exist between Seeker and Carel, Seeker and Keith, and Seeker and Whiskey, a shape-shifting kelpie whom she binds in the first chapter. It's all there, but with so little about these characters to engage you emotionally, it has the same feeling of detachment that inhibits the novel as a whole.

Blood and Iron has its moments, but those moments are mainly ones in which it shifts from its usual crawling pace into something like a casual walk, before getting winded and slumping down into the nearest park bench for a breather. It isn't until we get near the end that it all finally picks up. I did like the werewolves. The Russian brothers who arrive on the scene to challenge Keith, only to find he isn't the least interested in leading the pack, and that he only rises to the occasion out of duty once he learns he cannot avoid inheriting the role of the Dragon Prince, are among the few players in the whole affair with a hint of personality. Morgan le Fay also figures strongly in a supporting role, and indeed, had she been the main viewpoint character rather than the dreary and angst-ridden Seeker, we might have had some real excitement in these pages.

Yes, I admired the fact that Bear does everything in her power to eschew the simplistic good-vs.-evil moral conflicts you find in most fantasy. But this ironically is one of the factors that strips the novel of its most promising source of dramatic tension. The battle for the survival of faerie is played out as an arduous exercise in all-too-human politics. If you're a sucker for stories about people intriguing all over the place in medieval-European-style court settings, you may find this heaven. But I wanted a bit more of a human touch. These people are all at war, for crying out loud, and yet when supposed enemies speak face to face — such as in the earliest chapters, when Seeker, Kadiska (the Seeker of the rival Unseelie court), and Matthew encounter each other all at once when first meeting Carel — there's never any sense of seething hostility between them. Honestly, if these characters can't get worked up about their very own war, why should I? Blood and Iron is one epic fantasy that could have used a hell of a lot more iron in its blood.

Followed by Whiskey and Water.