“The Stratford Man” is the title of the two newest books in Elizabeth Bear’s “Promethean Age” series, Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth. These two novels were supposed to be one book, but the finished story was too long for that and had to be split into two. Although there are two previous books in the Promethean Age series (Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water), these take place after the newer two books and can be read either before or after as long as the first book in each duology is read before its sequel. I would recommend that readers interested in history and literature, Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Elizabethan times begin with Ink and Steel and those who enjoy mythology or stories taking place in modern settings begin with Blood and Iron. “The Stratford Man” duology is the more polished, stronger set although I personally enjoyed Blood and Iron the most of any of the books in this series.
Ink and Steel begins with the death of Kit Marley, who was murdered for his service to Queen Elizabeth as a member of the Prometheus Club. Soon after he is killed, his roommate and fellow writer Will Shakespeare is tested for his allegiance to the queen and found worthy of succeeding Kit by writing magical plays to inspire loyalty toward her. Will is taken to meet the rest of the Prometheus Club and discovers that Francis Walsingham, believed dead for 3 years is still alive and part of the order. With the knowledge of his predecessor’s fate, Will reluctantly agrees to write plays for them due to his loyalty to Queen Elizabeth.
Meanwhile, Kit awakens in Faerie where he has been saved by the Faerie Queen as a favor to Elizabeth. He is knighted by Morgan le Fey, who tended his wounds and gave him a drink – meaning he can not return the mortal world permanently. Kit now must trade his fealty to Queen Elizabeth to the Mebd, the queen of Faerie. However, in a world in which “All stories are true” the two faerie queens represent each other and supporting the reign of one strengthens the reign of the other. Kit returns to the mortal world when he can, reveals himself to the rest of the Prometheus Club, and remains influential in politics in both realms.
“The Stratford Man” is split up into five acts with each act containing a number of scenes. Ink and Steel contains the first three acts and Hell and Earth contains the latter two. Each section has a quote from Shakespeare’s plays or sonnets or Marlowe’s plays.
As can be expected from Elizabeth Bear, the prose is exquisite and descriptive without being verbose. The dialogue is often clever and speech is written in a way that feels like Olde English without being authentic (and is therefore not as difficult to parse). A few words that were not modern day English were included but there was normally enough context to guess what they meant. The other Promethean Age books also have a rich vocabulary and part of the fun in reading them is looking up the words or references I don’t know or would like to know more about.
Although the afterword says that these books are not historically accurate, there are plenty of characters from the time period and Bear ties several theories about the life of Christopher Marlowe into the tale, such as speculation that his death was faked, he was an atheist, a spy for the queen, a homosexual, and a magician. The story also embellishes on real events, such as Marlowe’s near failure to be allowed to graduate for possibly attending a Catholic college until it is revealed that he was performing a service for his country.
These two books were tighter and more mature than the two previous “Promethean Age” novels. I enjoyed the characters, mythological references, dark feel, and prose in Blood and Iron immensely, but felt that Whiskey and Water was weaker, particularly in the vast number of characters that had spotlight. As in the first book in the series, these two contain a vast number of characters including many Englishman from the time and well-known legends such as Morgan le Fey, Puck, and Lucifer. However, the main focus is on the two characters of Kit Marley and Will Shakespeare, which made for a much better story. Both of them are well-developed characters one can identify with and care about and their dilemmas are truly tragic.
“The Stratford Man” duology is not a light read but is an immensely satisfying one with rich prose, deep characters, political maneuvering, and lots of imagination. I hope the rest of the planned books in this series are eventually written and published.