Book of Iron by Elizabeth Bear
Book of Iron by Elizabeth Bear (Subterranean Press, 2013) is a second novella in the Eternal Sky series, a prequel to Bones and Jewel Creatures where we first met Bijou, one of the Wizards of Messaline. Her magical ability is as an Artificer. She makes creatures out of bones and jewels, animating then with her breath, guiding them with her mind. These creatures are more than mere puppets. They are extensions of her mind. In this elegantly produced book from Subterranean Press, we find her in a more stable form of relationship with Kaulas the Necromancer and Prince Salih as they are approached for help by a newly arrived trio: Maledysaunte, Salamander and Riordan. They want help to enter Ancient Erem in pursuit of Dr Liebelos who has has two claims to fame. She’s the mother of Salamander and a magician with the rare gift of Precisianism, the gift of making “things” orderly, sometimes permanently so. Although our heroine and her two companions suspect there’s a lot left unsaid in this request for help, they understand that anyone who has the power to enter Ancient Erem may be able to cause serious (and permanent) disruption to their world. Preparing for the worst, they therefore make arrangements to lead their visitors into this most dangerous of places.
This is a fascinating insight into the history of the relationship between the world and Erem, highlighting the way in which magic and technology remain intertwined. In the human world, the vestiges of oil-powered land and air transport remain functional but in such short supply, their use is only for those of high status and power. So Prince Salih, the second son of the local potentate, has a motor car for use when he needs to travel over distance at speed. But when it comes to entering Ancient Erem, they must ride on the backs of dead animals, reanimated for the purpose. Each side of the coin has its uses when something needs to be done. Within Erem itself, the ghuls or dog-men move around on the surface at night. Who knows what dangers may lurk below. From this you’ll understand there’s a curious transition between the human world and the entirely different Erem. Although it may have an oxygen environment similar to the human world, i.e. it supports life, the stars are different and the multiple suns are death to anyone caught out in the daylight. That leaves most of the life in underground caves. Fortunately, electric torches work as well as the more ancient forms of magic. As you’ll no doubt gather from the title, the point of the pursuit into Erem is to decide who shall control the Book of Iron, one of the oldest texts of magic ever created. As with all things magical, nothing is ever straightforward and sometimes painful decisions have to be made when the order of the worlds may be at stake.
At its heart, the Book of Iron is a story about relationships. In particular, it asks what precisely we might understand by the concept of friendship. Obviously, it’s rather different to the love a child might feel towards a parent because that’s not something originating through choice. Individuals choose to become friends. They come to care about each other, assuming some degree of responsibility for the welfare of each other. It’s possible this will involve some degree of intimacy but it’s not necessary for this to be sexual. Put the other way round, a couple could be lovers in the physical sense but not strictly speaking friends. Physical attraction and the need to possess another for a period of time is not the same as friendship which adds value by sharing ideas and interests. So here we have two trios, both of which have been stable until they come together in stressful times. The “adventure” they share and its outcome forces the survivors to reconsider their relationships. Perhaps existing friendships can survive, but sexual relationships might have to be rethought. Maybe new friendships might form as old friendships are destroyed. When it comes down to the survival of individuals and the fate of the worlds, hard decisions may have unexpected social consequences.
The result of this rumination is an acceptance of delight. Book of Iron is a most pleasing fantasy novella which balances action against the exploration of the human heart. Fortunately, it’s the heart that wins out.
For reviews of other books by Elizabeth Bear, see:
A Companion to Wolves (with Sarah Monette)
Range of Ghosts
Seven for a Secret
Shoggoths in Bloom
Steles of the Sky
The Tempering of Men (with Sarah Monette)
The White City
The rather beautiful jacket artwork for this Subterranean Press edition is by Maurizio Manzieri.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.