Elizabeth Bear,
Promethean Age #3: Ink & Steel
(Roc, 2008)

Elizabeth Bear,
Promethean Age #4: Hell & Earth
(Roc, 2008)

Edward de Vere. Christopher Marlowe. Francis Bacon. Mary Sydney. All those individuals, and others, have been credited as writing the plays attributed to William Shakespeare. For centuries, critics have been arguing back and forth regarding "The Stratford Man" -- who he was, did he write the plays, how could he write the plays, etc.

Elizabeth Bear, in her two new novels of the Prometheans, collectively called The Stratford Man, presents a picture of late Elizabethan/early Jacobean England as regards to William Shakespeare. De Vere is there, indeed, as a conspirator and a second-rate poet. Marlowe, Kit Marley, is at hand also -- resurrected from the dead by Faerie. For if Elizabeth I's reign and succession are threatened, so is that of Faerie's Queen Mab.

The Prometheans, first encountered in Bear's Blood & Iron and later in Whiskey & Water, split into two adversarial factions as far back as Tudor times. Marlowe and his plays supported Elizabeth via one side of the split. With his "death," what other poet can take over his role? Well, Shakespeare's available, of course. But is it too much to ask a man with a family back in Stratford to take on this dangerous espionage, to risk his life as Marlowe did?

That's a question Marlowe asks many times, but as Shakespeare himself winds up in Faerie and Lucifer becomes involved, the risks become even greater. Bear has created a late Renaissance thriller here, blending Christian theology with Celtic lore, balancing sides by a thread when neither the protagonist nor the reader is sure whom to trust. Da Vinci Code, step aside. These books are the real deal, created with consummate care and obvious love for the setting and its people.

In a Dr Who episode filmed at the Globe, David Tennant's character stated that "50 academics punched the air" when the William Shakespeare he meets is clearly bisexual. For me, as a Shakespeare scholar and teacher, I punched the air quite a few times whilst reading both books. Bear's research is exemplary. She admits, in the acknowledgements at the end of Hell & Earth, to taking some liberties with certain items, such as the chronology of Shakespeare's plays, but she is to be commended for not only her research but also for the period feel of her settings and her graceful writing style. She's done her best to bring Early Modern English sounds to a Modern English audience, reproducing the ambience of the period side-by-side with her gripping storyline.

It's not necessary to have read Blood & Iron or Whiskey & Water before embarking upon this set of Stratford Man novels, as they are set long after the action of these newer books. However, Ink & Steel really needs must be read first before Hell & Earth, and it helps to read one right after the other. First off, a listing of "Principal Players" appears only in Ink & Steel. Secondly, you won't want to waste time between novels. The end of Ink & Steel left me clamouring for more. If you're anything like me, when you finally put down Ink & Steel, you'll want to know more of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson and the various characters from Faerie with whom they conspire. And, by the end of Hell & Earth, like me, you might just want to read further about the Prometheans in the years prior to Blood & Iron. More, please, Bear?

review by
Ellen Rawson

27 September 2008

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