Book of Iron is a novella-length prequel to another one of Elizabeth Bear’s novellas, Bone and Jewel Creatures. These books are set in the same world as her Eternal Sky trilogy consisting of Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars, and the upcoming Steles of the Sky. Book of Iron is a self-contained story and it is not necessary to read any of these other books first.
Bijou the Artificer and her two companions, Prince Salih and Kaulus the Necromancer, have made a name for themselves in the city of Messaline and are often sought after for assistance with special problems. However, the reputation of the three adventurers has spread beyond Messaline, particularly tales of their time spent in Ancient Erem. When three foreign adventurers come seeking Erem, they first approach the prince and the two Wizards to ask permission to continue their journey.
Led by the legendary 600-year-old necromancer Maledysaunte, the travelers have come seeking the mother of one of the other party members, the Wizard Salamander. Salamander’s mother is a rare wizard with a gift for order, permanence, and resistance to change. She has gone into Erem, and the consequences of a Wizard with her power mastering the artifacts in this ancient place could be disastrous. Once Bijou and her associates hear their story and learn the importance of their mission, they decide to accompany them: after all, six are better than three, especially when three of them have lived to tell the tale of their experiences in dangerous Erem.
While Book of Iron has a lot in common with Eternal Sky in addition to the setting, it is also quite different from this series. Like Eternal Sky, it’s beautifully and intelligently written, engaging, and populated by an intriguing cast of characters. Due to its much shorter length, Book of Iron doesn’t share the same rich detail yet it manages to have a lot of impact despite being a short book. It’s largely an adventure story, and it’s more straightforward and fun than any of Elizabeth Bear’s other books I’ve read, yet it also has depth, particularly in Bijou’s characterization.
One aspect of the setting that I particularly enjoyed were the combinations of traditional epic fantasy with technology and magic with science. Book of Iron is a quest adventure story with wizards and princes, but Bijou and her fellow adventurers get to their destination by automobile… and then ride into dangerous Erem astride the bones of horses, an ass, and a camel. Aeroplanes and pistols also exist in this world, and while it’s not unusual to combine even more modern technology than in this book with a fantasy setting, I haven’t read many books that do so as naturally as this one (though, admittedly, there’s very little technology other than what I just mentioned).
One of the things I loved so much about Eternal Sky was that the wizards used scientific knowledge together with magic, in a complete reversal of the science vs. magic trope. The wizards who were healers didn’t just concentrate hard and magically cure their patients but used their powers in combination with their knowledge of human anatomy. Since it is shorter, Book of Iron doesn’t have as much detail on Wizardry or as clear a picture of the scientific thinking involved, but magic and science are still intertwined. There’s a lot of thought and hard work that go into magic, and Bijou thinks of her Wizardry as science when she’s pondering what dissection could teach her about fate and necromancy:
This is not the time for science, she told herself, knowing it for a lie. As far as she was concerned, thinking about Wizardry was a constant. [pp. 39]
A couple of the Wizards are Necromancers, but there are some unusual schools of Wizardry as well. Bijou is an Artificer gifted at animating bones. She can simply animate them with her will, or she can make her own amazing creations like Ambrosias. Ambrosias was crafted into a bejeweled centipede from the bones of horses and cats and the skull of a ferret and given a personality. There are also wizards of chaos and order, and the Wizard sought by Bijou and her companions is one of the latter, a precisian. Precisians are rare and dangerous because their gift is making permanent creations that are stubbornly resistant to change.
Other than Bijou, whose personal journey is a significant part of the story, the characters are not terribly deep, which is not surprising given the length of the book. However, I’d love to read more about some of the other characters given the glimpses I did get from this novella. I suspect Kaulus, a necromancer who is afraid of death, may have an interesting history. Maledysaunte, an immortal who looks nothing like the rumors of the “Hag of Wolf Wood” made her sound, also seems like a character with potential for an intriguing backstory. I’m now hoping for more books about the different characters, but I’m also quite happy to know that I can read more about Bijou in Bone and Jewel Creatures.
Book of Iron is both thoroughly entertaining and thoughtfully written. While it’s largely a quest adventure, it doesn’t ignore the setting and characterization, and I especially liked that Bijou learned throughout the book and had a different outlook by the time the book was over. My only complaint about it is that the book is too short, but such is the nature of novella length fiction, and I don’t really find wanting more stories about these characters to be a terrible reaction (it’s certainly better than the opposite!).
My Rating: 8.5/10
Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.