In her diptych, Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water, Elizabeth Bear shows us the end of the story of the Promethean Age, when Faerie has been fighting a long war against technology, against Hell, and against those magicians, the Prometheans, who would still see it bound.
In the second volume of that series, when Christopher Marlowe, part of Lucifer's household, appears, he blazes across the page in such a way that I knew, then, that Bear had to write more of his story, and how he had gotten to be in Lucifer's household in the first place.
In Ink and Steel, the first of another diptych, Elizabeth Bear takes us back to the days when Christopher Marlowe is still alive (although not for long), and just as importantly, the early days of the career of one William Shakespeare, whose poetry and pose is as potent an armament as any Elf-knight's sword. For such poetry and pose are strong magic, magic that can be used for good, or for ill...
Shakespeare and his world is a popular choice for fantasy and SF authors. Ruled Britannia has him writing plays for a Spanish-installed Monarch. Sarah Hoyt's trilogy has Shakeapeare tangle with the land of Faerie. Neil Gaiman had Shakespeare meet one of the Endless. Poul Anderson's Midsummer's Tempest is a fine novel where Shakespeare's plays are fact. Bear is in good company here.
With chapters arranged like acts and scenes of a play, with florid, lush descriptions and prose, and the subject matter of Shakespeare and Elizabethan England and Elizabethan Faerie, the book, at least this half, reads and feels like a prose version of one of William Shakespeare's plays. Betrayals, forbidden and denied love, politics, unusual landscapes, engaging and multisided characters convince me that these are books that Bear not only enjoyed writing, but in a sense was born to write. This book (and I am sure, the second half, Hell and Earth) are the kind of books that an author has in mind when she decides to become a writer.
I think, too, that Bear hits it out of the park. I personally know that Elizabethan England is something that Bear knows a fair amount about, and that knowledge flows out onto the page. From the minutae of the changes in the courtiers and servants to Queen Elizabeth, all the way down to what a trip through the streets of London feels like, that knowledge is not dumped on the page, but, rather, flows into that previously mentioned lush text. And then there is Faerie, and even a trip into Hell. Bear is not afraid to make things happen and deliver on the page, consistently, for the reader.
This IS the first novel of two, and so the story does not end here, which may frustrate some readers. I suspect others may object to some characterizations of Shakespeare and Marlowe, but one might consider that Bear almost certainly knows more about the subject than me or you.
I look forward to finishing the Statford Man sequence in Hell and Earth and see just how Bear finishes off the story.