Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Well Thumbed Book: Ink and Steel

by Karen Adler

Elizabeth Bear’s Ink and Steel is a kaleidoscope of a novel. Set in Elizabethan England, the novel centers around the Prometheus Club, a secret organization dedicated to Queen Elizabeth’s protection through magic and sorcery. The society includes prominent members of English royalty, as well as assorted playwrights of the time, whose plays include spells that strengthen the power of the monarchy. Christopher Marlowe is one of them, and when he dies in a mysterious way, the Prometheans recruit young Will Shakespeare in his stead, and instruct him in the art of spell-crafting. 

But Marlowe isn’t really dead. He’s been taken by the Queen of the Faeries, whose power is tied to Elizabeth’s. She binds Marlowe, once an agent of the mortal queen, to herself. Marlowe finds himself immersed in a dazzling yet dangerous world of magic, populated with characters from the great English myths and legends. Marlowe can now only reappear in the mortal realm for short spans of time before he feels the pull of the immortal one. On one such trip, he manages to confront an astonished Will Shakespeare and tell him all that has befallen him, including the fact that his attempted murderer was one of the Prometheans.

Ironically, this fantasy novel answers the question of who really wrote Shakespeare better than any theory I’ve read so far. It weaves together unsolved mysteries of the era—how did Christopher Marlowe die? Where did Shakespeare get the information and skill to write his plays?—and even though the solutions involve secret societies and faeries, Elizabeth Bear has created such a realistic, vivid sixteenth-century world that you can actually believe she has secret insight into some of the great unanswered questions of the historical record. While reading Ink and Steel, you can almost believe that Shakespeare was so well acquainted with the realm of faeries that he drew their portraits from life for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Bear’s cast of characters is so extensive—including everyone from Richard Burbage, the star of many Shakespeare plays, to Thomas Walsingham, the cousin of Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster—that she includes a list of characters in the beginning, which I referred to frequently as I read.

Bear wrote her ambitious novel on the same grand scale as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Like Shakespeare and Marlowe’s plays, Ink and Steel has so many levels of meaning and motivation that you can come back to it over and over and find more in it on each re-reading. 

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