I am madly in love with a book (other than the one I’m writing): Elizabeth Bear’s Ink and Steel. It’s actually the first half of what was once one long book; here’s the other half. I’m doling it out to myself in very small portions, lest I get drunk on Elizabethan dialogue and lit geek jokes.
The conceit is that Christopher Marlowe (Kit Marley) is a member of the Prometheus Club, a clandestine organization that uses magic to support Elizabeth’s reign. (In a nutshell.) Kit’s job was, unsurprisingly, to write plays, and his death leaves a gaping hole in the roster. From the prologue:
Oxford cleared his throat and his memories. “But with Marley, we lose the Lord Admiral’s men, leaving us without a company–”
“There is my company,” Burbage put in, but Oxford’s voice rose over the player’s effortlessly.
“–and without a playmaker under whose name to perform our works. Never mind Kit’s ear for a verse.”
Walsingham extended a long, knotty hand, bony wrist protruding from dusty velvet, skin translucent as silk over gnarled blue veins. “Oxford–”
But Oxford shook his head. “I have not Kit’s grasp on an audience, Sir Francis.”
Hundson’s hands lay flat on the scarred tabletop. He closed his eyes. “It risks Elizabeth.”
Walsingham’s chin jerked sharply. “We’ll find another way.”
He stared down at his hands until his attention was drawn outward again when Burbage coughed.
“What is it, then?”
Burbage drew himself up. “I know a man.”
This cracks me up every time I read it. You know whose door Burbage is about to darken. It’s also funny as hell if you follow the arguments over who wrote Shakespeare’s plays — and the original title of the unified book was, after all, The Stratford Man. (Or, as the author likes to call it, Will & Kit’s Bogus Journey.)
Because things are not over for poor Kit. Left for dead by traitors within the Prometheans, he’s been drawn into the realm of Faerie and is now bound to the Mebd.
“In faith, Rosemary,” he said, so he would not hiss in pain. “I hope I’m not dead. I thought death was meant to be an end to worldly cares, and here I find rather less release than might be hoped from a knife in the eye. Tell me then, be I dead, or in Cheapside?”
“Neither dead nor in Cheapside, sir knight,” an amused voice answered. “And you’ll find the legend of your wit precedes you. Drink, if you’ll risk it.” The cool fingers touched his lips, and water dripped into his mouth. Water? No, some tisane, sweet with honey and tart with lemons. Rosehips and catmint. “Better?”
“No knight,” he answered. “But a playmaker. Yes, better by far than the taste of my oversleeping. Was I fevered?” He put a hand up to cover hers, but his trembled and hers was strong.
“Bards are honored as much as knights here,” she answered. “And you’re a Queen’s Man, which makes you more a servant of the crown than many entitled to a Sir. You are lucky to be alive.”
That did open his eyes–his eye, as the right one seemed swollen shut. He remembered a knife in the hand of his master’s man– Poultice or no, he sat, pulling the wet cloth aside. His ring was missing, the gold and iron ring Edward had given him. “Where did you hear such deviltry, woman?”
She was tall. Hair black and coarse as wire, gray at the temples, strong and fine of feature with an aristocratic nose. If she’d not had her hair twisted into a simple straight braid and been dressed in gray-green linsey-woolsey, he might have said she was like enough his Queen to be Elizabeth’s own cousin.
“From Gloriana,” she replied, straightening her spine like a Queen herself. “And before you ask why you live, Kit Marley, Queen’s Man–call it a favor from one Queen to another.”
If you want more, the first three
chapters acts are posted on Bear’s site. (Scroll down a bit.) It’s part of the larger Promethean Age series, but so far, it appears that you don’t have to have read Blood and Iron or Whiskey and Water, the two previously published books, to get into Ink and Steel — which is, after all, set four hundred years earlier. Knowing what happens in the other two will give you a sense of impending doom about the proceedings, is all.
And I do highly recommend reading more. If you can get to the part where Will snarks to Kit (back in London, on loan from the Mebd) that Hero and Leander is an ode to Leander’s arse and not fall hard for this book, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am.
Now comes the fun part, because I know you’re all intrigued and stuff, and you’re thinking, “Hey, I should get me one of those.” But you’ll have to click those Amazon links above or get thee to a Borders, because Barnes & Noble fubared their database and didn’t order any copies of either book. SRSLY. They can order them for you if you ask for them by ISBN, but not by title or author. Even though both books are right there on their website and everything.
In case you do need to use B&N, here you go:
Ink and Steel: 0451462092
Hell and Earth: 0451462181
Idiots. These are SUCH good books. They deserve a wide readership.