One of the freshest and most interesting developments in fantasy literature over the past decade or two has been the emergence of what I tend to call "contemporary fantasy." Known also as "urban fantasy" or sometimes "mythic literature," it combines the trappings and motifs of classic fantasy and sometimes horror with a modern-day, usually urban milieu. It also moves freely into other genres. Call it fantasy's answer to cyberpunk. It has that kind of fluidity and, more often than not, that kind of hard-edged, dark vision.
Elizabeth Bear's Blood and Iron, the latest such novel to come my way, is the story of what turns out to be the latest battle in an ongoing and centuries-long war between the Courts of Faerie, whose power is of song and bindings and innate gifts, and the Magi of the Prometheus Club, whose magic is a thing of arcane knowledge and iron weapons, against which the Fae have little recourse. Both sides, of course, are fighting in self-defense, the Magi to take back halfling children and adults stolen by the Fae, the Fae to stop the increasing encroachment of cold iron on the world. This battle is critical because a new Merlin has been found, signaling another conjunction in the cycle. As in the past, the appearance of the Merlin also heralds the arrival of a Dragon Prince and a King, all leading to a critical juncture in an ancient struggle. The intrigue around the Merlin is key: the Magi have been working toward a final stroke against Faerie that will end the conflict once and for all, and the Merlin's power in support of their cause is crucial to its success.
The Seeker of the Daoine Sidhe, the Summer Court of Faerie, was born Elaine Andraste, and is the daughter of the archmage of the Prometheans, Jane Andraste. She was taken by the Fae when her lover, Keith MacNeill, gave her name to the Mebd, the Summer Queen. She is charged with seducing the Merlin to the Daoine Sidhe's cause. Kadiska, the Seeker of the Unseelie Fae, the Winter Court, is also after the Merlin, as is Matthew, Magus for the Prometheans. The Merlin, Dr. Carel Bierce, is a geology professor, singer, and to everyone's surprise, a woman. She, however, is no innocent, and as it turns out, is not really very biddable.
In researching this book I ran across a commentary that actually made me smile, if only because it demonstrates how subjective reviews are, no matter how much we try for objectivity. The reviewer in question was unhappy about the very things that I enjoyed most about Blood and Iron: the book is rich in references to folklore from Celtic and other traditions, as well as traditional ballads, classic drama, and even pop culture. It is, in fact, a reworking of the Arthur legend (Arthur appears, and is a key character; even more so is Morgan le Fay, the Queen of Air and Darkness), given a new cast of characters and brought closer to its bones, so to speak. Bear has taken the elements of the Arthur legend, reduced them to essentials, fitted in her own archetypes -- the Merlin, the Dragon Prince, the King -- that refer not only to Arthur but to other figures, legendary and historical (Harold Godwineson, Vlad Tepesh) who can be -- perhaps "interpreted" is the best word here -- to fit into a common pattern, and then retells the story.
The interweaving of all these threads is fascinating (and quite frankly, I'm not so erudite that I get all the references, but then I don't have to -- I can see they're there, and that in itself adds another dimension to the narrative). The Courts of Fae, for example, are under the protection of the Morningstar; in return the Courts pay a tithe to Hell every seven years on Halloween. Keith MacNeill, the Seeker's lover and the father of her child, is a werewolf and heir to the Sire of the pack. There is an ancient talking willow, though this one is more benign than others we may have run across in our reading. There is a dragon, as subtle and tricky as any other you've ever read about, and much more important to the workings of the world. The ballad "Tam Lin" is a recurring motif echoing the histories of several of the characters.
Blood and Iron has what I can only call a noirish cast to it, perhaps because Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler have influenced contemporary fantasy at least as much as Robert E. Howard and J. R. R. Tolkien. There are "good guys" who are good simply because they are the characters on whom Bear focuses; for the most part, they have taken the part of Faerie, willingly or not, and they are presented sympathetically. By the same token, the "bad guys" aren't really that bad, not on the Saturday morning cartoon, gloating-and-handwringing scale we're used to from too much fantasy of every stripe. Everyone comes across as human, even if they're not, just doing what they have to do to survive.
There are one or two passages where the characters explain their whys and wherefores, which always bothers me in a novel, particularly since these sorts of things tend to happen right at the climaxes, blowing the tension of the story to bits. Bear doesn't quite commit that sin, but in one or two places it's close, although surprisingly, I found those passages less jarring on the second read. However, I am firmly of the opinion that all of this should be built in already anyway, and I am not fond of didactic passages in a novel.
That's minor, in view of the richness and sharp edge of Bear's text. Writing is a series of trade-offs, and so reading has to be as well, and whatever faults I might find in pacing or in character (none on that score, as a matter of fact) or the other elements of a novel are cancelled out by the sheer joy of reading this one, arcane allusions and all.
Elizabeth Bear can be found on the Web here.