Whiskey and Water is the second book in Elizabeth Bear’s urban fantasy series “The Promethean Age.” It takes place a few years after the end of Blood and Iron, the first book in the series, which should be read before this one. The next two books in the series, Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth (to be released in just a few days on August 5) form the “Stratford Man” duology, which are prequels to the first two books set during the time of Queen Elizabeth.
Blood and Iron was fantastic, a dark fantasy containing many references to mythology, and I had hopes that the following book would be even better since the title promised more of my favorite character, the water horse Whiskey. While the (already lovely) writing had improved, I felt that the story told in Whiskey and Water was not as good as the one told in the first book and that was too much focus on a wide variety of characters instead of a few select ones.
Seven years after the war between the fae and the mages of the Promethean Club, Elaine Andraste still sits upon the painful Seelie throne and the mage Matthew has appointed himself as a protector of New York City. On Halloween night, Matthew patrols the city and finds the mangled body of a young woman that looks much like the body of a man Matthew once saw after he was attacked by Elaine’s demon when she was a seeker for the previous Seelie Queen. Matthew determines to find out why this happened before his former mentor the archmage Jane can begin another war against the fae like the one that destroyed Matthew’s life and ended the lives of most of the other Promethean mages. He and the dead woman’s friends, a young Otherkin woman who calls herself Jules and a young man with potential to be a mage named Geoff, meet with the merlin and embark on a journey to Faerie.
The former Promethean mage Christopher Marlowe decides to leave hell to seek revenge upon Jane for the death of Murchaud, the duke of hell who was Marlowe’s lover. First he visits Faerie so he can pay his respects to Murchaud by laying some flowers upon his grave. There he meets Whiskey, who is still carrying the burden of Elaine’s soul so she can sit upon the Seelie throne without dying, and becomes entangled in the affairs of the fae.
Bear’s prose is exquisite, detailed, beautiful, and just plain impressive. She uses a very lush, rich vocabulary to paint a vivid picture. The wide variety of rare words means I did have to look a few words up in the dictionary (most of them probably could be skipped without losing a lot of general knowledge of the story but I really wanted to know what they meant). Her dialogue is also wonderful and I particularly loved the discourse between Geoff and Matthew in which Matthew informed Geoff that all the fairy tales he had read had gotten it wrong when the happy children returned home after their adventures to Narnia or Oz:
Books are lies. All books are lies, but the books that say you can walk out of Faerie unscathed are more so. It’s not that you come back and not a moment has passed — it’s that you’re gone a moment, and fifteen years have gone, and everyone you loved has forgotten you.
Only Peter Pan has ever told the truth, according to Matthew:
You can’t have it all; you have to choose. The iron world, or Faerie. You can’t have both, and once you visit one, you can’t return untouched.
It’s not your Disney fairy tale with happy singing creatures where everyone lives happily ever after.
As in the first book in this series, many mythologies play a role in the story in which it is often stated that “All stories are true.” Heaven and hell are introduced with the roles of the archangel Michael as well as Marlowe’s beautiful, smooth Lucifer and Milton’s more brutish Satan. The legends of the British isles are still present along with some inclusion of Australian folklore with the character of the bunyip. Yet Bear still takes these elements and makes them her own, giving each character a distinct presence and some have their own twists, such as the archangel Michael being female.
There is so much packed into this book that it would be helpful to reread it to tie all the threads together. The first book had many characters but the story still focused on Elaine and, to a lesser extent, Matthew. While the earlier book was more Elaine’s story, the sequel feels more like Matthew’s story although it introduces so many new characters and perspectives that it loses that feeling of having just a main character or two. I felt that made this book weaker in spite of its stronger prose since it made it harder to grow attached to the characters. Elaine is still (rarely) present, but the story now includes the viewpoints of Matthew, Marlowe, Whiskey, a cop named Don, Jules and Geoff, Carel, a goth girl named Lily, the various devils, and various pagans who meet with the merlin’s girlfriend Autumn. Matthew and Marlowe interested me and I loved all things fae, but I did find myself a bit bored with Jules, Geoff, Lily, and all the pagan/goth/Otherkin characters in general. I missed Elaine’s point of view and the scenes with her and Whiskey that were so well done in the first book were few and far between. However, I did love some of the scenes with Lucifer and Satan, Matthew and Marlowe so there are certainly still interesting characters and conversations.
If you like dark, complex tales incorporating mythological and literary concepts and enjoyed the first book in this series, I’d recommend continuing with Whiskey and Water in spite of a few problems with too many central characters for one story of this length.
Reviews of other books in this series:
Blood and Iron