With Book of Iron, Elizabeth Bear pays another visit to the world of Bijou the Artificer, the Wizard of Messaline who makes creatures out of bone, jewels, and metal and who embarks on adventures, whom we first met in Bone and Jewel Creatures.
Bijou and her fellow adventurers, Prince Salih, second son of the Bey, and Kaulas the Necromancer, her quondam lover, are about to set off on another adventure, this time at the behest of three travelers: Riordan, a bard; Salamander, a Wizard of unspecified skills; and Maledysaunte, a Necromancer. The three have come on a mission concerning the Book of Iron, an artifact of the lost city of Ancient Erem — that is, the Erem that was the predecessor of a later Erem, on the ruins of which Messaline is built. They are on the trail of one Dr. Liebelos, a precisian, who is attempting to resurrect the Book, which will have dire consequences, most immediately for Maledysaunte, but ultimately for the world.
Bear is one of those rare writers of fantasy for whom magic is not so much a device as an integral part of the story — part of its bones. It’s in the ambience, the milieu, and also part of the telling. She has the gift of making things plain without resort to tedious explanations — here, we are treated to the deadly suns of ancient Erem (not the suns of Messaline, or Avalon, or any other part of the world), and ghuls, amphisbaenae, and myrmecoleons, and we find out what they are — eventually, when we need to know it.
The diction is spare, lean and quite straightforward, and the tension in the story (and there is, indeed, more than enough tension to keep us engaged) comes not so much from the events — there are threats and dire circumstance that, when all is said and done, are dealt with fairly easily — as from the surround, most significantly in what we tend to call the “interpersonal dynamics.” Bear once again leaves much of those dynamics to inference, filtered through the thoughts of Bijou. It’s a tension of relationships that serves to build substance into what is otherwise a fairly simple story.
Don’t take that “simple story” thing as in any way dismissive — it’s also very rich and engaging, and well worth the time spent. You may even find yourself impelled to go back to its predecessor — just to refresh your memory, of course.
(Subterranean Books, 2013)