Friday, November 3, 2017

Ideas I am Currently Stealing, Part 1: The Promethean Age Novels, by Elizabeth Bear

Here we begin a new series for this blog. The next few months will be about books I unreservedly love, authors who are doing things I find interesting and expanding and challenging, and, as the title suggests, books with ideas, styles, elegance of prose and tone, or other excellences that I am actively trying to incorporate into my own work. I intend this series to give some insight, for the very few who may be interested (hi dad), into my creative thought process, but more importantly to highlight exciting authors, many of them relatively current, and direct readers to the people who have already done the things I am trying to emulate, generally better than I can.

It is not particularly hyperbolic to say that these novels are some of the most important books in my life. They are the fairy books to which I compare all others in that niche, my gold standard for modern literary treatment of the old stories, and I take the ideas I will highlight in this blog as a good checklist of elements that make a fairy story whole for me. The books come in two pairs, one pair set in the modern day as fairy struggles to reclaim a place in the human imagination and deals with the consequences of doing so; the second a sort prequel, set in Elizabethan England and starring delightfully imagined Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. The ideas I want to talk about thread through all four novels. By the time you read this, I will have begun work on the second book of a planned trilogy that counts these books as its most direct inspiration. So, let’s get right into why these books are so excellent, and what ideas I am tearing out of them to spruce up the unruly nest of my own writing.

Fairy takes. That comes first and fundamental to a story about fairies and the immortal West. Fairyland and its fairies are hungry, and everything they give costs dear. There is always an exchange, but a good bargain is not one that costs less; it is one where the mortal has reckoned the cost beforehand and resolved that what they can get is worth the price. More often, the reward is gone in an instant, and the price lasts a lifetime: ruined limbs and a mind filled only with the memory for one night of dancing on the green while fairy music played, your freedom and your choice for the chance to claim a fairy birthright and live a little longer than mortal span. Sometimes, you do not make the choice; it is made for you, and you pay the price for a gift you never wanted. I think the idea of fairy as a hungry place is at the core of work that gives proper respect to the old myths that long preceded the fairy-dust and little wings of Victorian corruption.

Magic costs too, the getting and the using of it. There can be magic in a bloodline, as there is for the changeling main character of the first pair of novels, but birth to power is birth to obligation, perhaps even to destiny, and those chains bind tight and take their price in heartache. Another character is a witch, and that power comes quite literally from congress with the devil. Blood or gift, knowledge or skill, magic is not a wand and a smile in place of work. It is another bargain, with a price in time or pain or something harder. Using the power gained is just as expensive, or worse. Will and secret knowledge and knot in your hair may let you bind a fairy by its name and hold it at your service, but tying the knot changes you, and each one after does the same. Bear shows the power the first binding, and the weight of the choice to give it up, and she shows us a fairy queen with countless servants knotted into her hair, and how those knots breed fear and hate and isolation, and how they chain the queen’s choices down to a narrow course. Witchcraft is more expensive still, if one wishes to be rid of the Devil’s company, when each act of that power presses the memory of a blasphemous kiss against your skin. Anyone who has read any of my stories knows I take care to make my magic cost, and the Promethean Age is as good a treatise as any on this point.

Stories matter. An oft repeated refrain in the Promethean Age is that “all stories are true.” Bear’s fairies (and many other creatures of magic and myth) are shaped by the stories people tell or once told about them. Bear fills her novels with a wealth of literature and mythology beyond the core of fairy stories, and I adore all of it. (It’s not a focus here because I can’t steal most of it for my secondary-world novels.) I adore the intentional use of story by characters, and Bear is no less adept than Terry Pratchett at writing characters who understand the power of narrative and manipulate it to their own ends, nor at showing the way a story can trap someone and carrying them along like an irresistible flood. The war between fairy and the iron world is waged over centuries, and stories and poetry are the weapons that scar human minds to one side or the other. Prophecy and destiny are recurrent themes in the Promethean Age, and what is destiny but a story the protagonist cannot escape? I have prophecies to deal with in my new novel, and intentional use of stories. I hope I can achieve an echo of the power Bear takes from them in her work.

Music, all art really, is a magic and power all its own. Music and magic go together so tightly in fairy stories that light between the two is likely a weakness in the writer’s weave, and Bear has no chinks. She takes the idea more broadly, and in a wonderful direction. In the Elizabethan novels, the plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare and Ben Johnson are grand sorceries, fighting back the plague and auguring the stability or fall of kings. When The Fairy Queen is published, the black hair of fairy queens turns red, and all queens are Elizabeth. I love poetry, and I love writing about music, and I adore any excuse to commit both things to the core of my narrative.

Fairy stories are really about people. Fairies are inhuman, immortal, magical, inscrutable, powerful creatures, and they are not the center of a good fairy story. Fairies need things; they trick, bind, aid, hunger, and demand of mortals. They are an inciting incident and a monster and an enticement, but the heart of a good fairy story is a human, a flawed, damaged mortal, or a collection of them. Bear delivers on this masterfully, masterfully enough that her work broke me out of deeply-carved youthful rut that kept my focus too much on the fairies, the their detriment and my stories’. I have made a choice to have no full fairies as points of view in my own fairy novels, to not offer a look inside their heads, and Bear’s brilliantly human characters are a large part of that decision. She reminds me every time I read that fairies are beautiful monsters, but the real weight comes from how they touch us, ordinary, human, vulnerable readers.

Here closes my first hectic, confused attempt at this kind of article. I hope I will have moved some of you to check out Elizabeth Bear’s writing, which is brilliant, and perhaps you’ll be intrigued by some of the same ideas that grabbed me by the throat and pulled. For those searching, the Promethean Age novels are Blood and Iron, Whiskey and Water, Ink and Steel, and Heaven and Earth. May you love them as much as I do.

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