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Literature / The Promethean Age

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The Promethean Age is an ongoing Alternate History Urban Fantasy by Elizabeth Bear. It combines Historical Domain Characters with standard fantasy tropes. Most of the books in the series are standalone, but the third and fourth constitute a duology called "The Stratford Man".

Books in the series:

  • Blood and Iron (2006)
  • Whiskey and Water (2007)
  • The Stratford Man
    • Ink and Steel (2008)
    • Hell and Earth (2008)
  • One Eyed Jack (2013)

Tropes in these books:

  • The All-Concealing "I": In Blood and Iron, one of the main characters magically gives up her name. From then on, all the sections from her perspective are written in the first person.
  • Bed Trick: This occurs in Whiskey and Water. Matthew Szczegelniak is both a wizard and a virgin, which means that whomever he sleeps with first will gain power. Morgan le Fay has made it clear that she wants this power, so Christopher Marlowe disguises himself as Matthew and offers to trade his virginity for the True Name of his adversary. She accepts, teaches him the name, and then reveals that she knew who he was all along, but had reasons of her own for wanting him to know the name.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: Christopher Marlowe, who may actually have been a secret agent, is taken into Faerie by Morgana after his "death". His place as a spy is taken by William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. Eventually he sells himself to the devil and becomes a warlock. The three of them along with others contend with the Promethean Society, a secret society of sorcerers whose ranks include the Earls of Essex, Southampton and Oxford (The latter of whom is one of the popular candidates for the role of the man who "really" wrote Shakespeare's plays. In here he does cowrite some of Shakespeare's earlier works but his "help" is more of a hindrance.)
  • Clap Your Hands If You Believe: Supernatural beings are heavily shaped by what if believed and what stories are told about them. For example, Lucifer, the devil to whom Christofer Marley sells himself, is openly based In-Universe on the demonic figures in Doctor Faustus.
  • Dead to Begin With: The Dramatis Personae of Ink and Steel declares Christofer Marley Dead To Begin With in so many words. He gets better.
  • Exact Words: In Hell and Earth, Richard Baines is persuaded to free his hostage William Shakespeare by Christopher Marlowe's oath that "Christofer Marley will do your bidding, Master Baines, and do unto thee no harm." Unfortunately for Baines, Christofer Marley sold his name to Lucifer, so for magical purposes, that name does not apply to Christopher Marlowe, who is completely free to gut Baines like a fish.
  • The Fair Folk: The Fairies in are, to a one, murderous, untrustworthy, and prone to double-crossing if not properly bound — and those are the sympathetic ones. (Makes sense, as the first book in the series is, among other things, a riff on the "Tam Lin" ballad, and Bear enjoys playing with legends and genre tropes.)
  • Famously Mundane, Fictionally Magical: The books use the Golden Spike as the lynchpin of a mystical anti-faerie enchantment. Railroads and iron, dontcha know. They also feature one of the lions in front of the New York City Public Library as a Genius Loci.
  • Fantastic Religious Weirdness: Fae who existed before the coming of Christ are not bound by Christian tradition, while those born afterwards are (and thus, for example, reflexively flinch whenever the name of God is spoken).
  • I Know Your True Name: Names have power, as is demonstrated in the Wham Chapter of Blood and Iron; Elaine gives her true name—and her soul—away, thus rendering herself immortal and therefore capable as taking over as the Queen of the Faeries. She occasionally still answers to the name, though; magic is magic, but you still need a way of getting someone's attention across a crowded room.
  • King in the Mountain: In Blood and Iron, King Arthur is actually awakened.
  • Mage Tower: In Whiskey and Water, Jane Andraste has taken the skyscraper headquarters of the Promethean order as her tower.
  • Multiple Narrative Modes: Blood and Iron is mostly written in the third person, but about two-thirds of the way through the book, the primary protagonist magically gives away her name, and all of her POV sections from that point on are in the first person.
  • Non-Humans Lack Attributes: Averted and Discussed in Ink and Steel. Christofer Marley asks Lucifer if fallen angels have the appropriate attributes to have sex with human men. Lucifer informs him that they do, as both humans and angels are made in the image of God. Shortly thereafter, Christofer gets some very personal experience of Lucifer's attributes.
  • Order Versus Chaos: The Fae are definitely Chaos and the Promethean Society Order and neither is presented as very nice. Subverted in that The Promethean Society was originally founded by Lucifer who is a Magnificent Bastard and the original rebel against Order.
  • Painting the Medium: Blood and Iron has a relatively subtle one. For the majority of the book, every character uses third person narration. After one character sells her soul her narration switches to first person — the implication being that she was telling the story all along, but is no longer the same person.
  • Perception Filter: The "pass-unseen" spell doesn't make you invisible; it simply causes people to fail to see you.
  • Seven League Boots: Christopher Marlowe enchants some regular boots into seven league boots in Whiskey and Water.
  • Shakespeare in Fiction: Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth are urban fantasy novels with Shakespeare and Marlowe as protagonists. They start with Marlowe's (apparent) death, and much is made of the (very real) Marlowe references in As You Like It. Interestingly, Hamnet's death in these books is also the Puck's fault—this may be a Shout-Out to Sandman.
  • The Unmasqued World: In Blood and Iron, a dragon reveals itself to humanity and the existence of the fey can not be denied.
  • Unreliable Narrator: The unreliable first-person narrator of Blood and Iron is so unreliable that, for the first third or so of the book, she narrates everything in third person, including scenes in which she herself is present. (It works, but this is definitely the Don't Try This at Home school of writing.)
  • Virgin Power: Matthew Szczgielniak is a male example, at least for most of the first two books in which he appears—the first of which, Blood and Iron, also features a particularly Grimmified take on the Unicorn Thing.
  • The Wild Hunt: The climax of Blood and Iron involves the Wild Hunt rampaging through Times Square.
  • Yowies and Bunyips and Drop Bears, Oh My: In Whiskey and Water, a bunyip challenges the eponymous kelpie to a duel to try to take over the leadership of the world's dark water spirits.