Elizabeth Bear is a versatile author as well as an award-winning one. Book of Iron, her new novella from Subterranean Press, is the latest addition to an extensive and varied bibliography. Set in the same world as Range of Ghosts, albeit many centuries after, it forms a prequel—of sorts—to another of Bear’s Subterranean Press novellas, the acclaimed Bone and Jewel Creatures. It’s also connected to one of her earlier short stories, “Abjure the Realm”
Bijou the Artificer is a Wizard of Messaline, the City of Jackals. Together with the Bey’s second son, Prince Salih, she and Kaulas the Necromancer solve problems of a magical nature. They’re adventurers in the prime of their lives and partnership.
But Messaline inherits its cognomen from a more ancient and terrible city, for in the nearby desert lie the ruins of lost, deadly Erem. When three foreigners—Maledysaute, an immortal necromancer; Riordan, an undead bard; and the youthful wizard Salamander—arrive asking for Salih Beyzade’s help pursuing another wizard whose intent is to enter Erem, they have no real choice but to agree. The woman they pursue is Salamander’s mother, and the chase leads them into the strange dark passages of monster-haunted Erem itself, beneath the fatal light of its suns. And the cost of failure is not to be considered.
Book of Iron has the outward form of a straightforward little adventure tale, its lineaments long familiar from a thousand pulps. Automobiles, aeroplanes, automatic pistols and group photographs lend it a dingily glamorous 1920s patina: if this were all it was, it would be worth a second look—but it wouldn’t be the gem of a thing that it is. Bear’s prose, never merely workaday, is here both measured and rich with sharply-observed detail. The characters are finely drawn and painfully realised individuals, and it is this—this viscerally real humanity—that colours the tense quest into Erem and its aftermath in the light of a meditation on the nature of friendship, and of loss.
“I think a courageous—a loyal—child protects her mother,” [Bijou] said, when she could get the words around the ache in her bosom. “That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
“My mother,” Salamander said. And, with a glance over her shoulder to Maledysaunte: “And my friend.”
“Well then.” Bijou nodded, as if that explained—and absolved—everything.
Perhaps it did.
Book of Iron affected me deeply. The pathos I found in it is not the text’s alone, or even, perhaps, this text’s at all. It is instead a function of reading of an adventure of Bijou’s youth with Bone and Jewel Creatures at the forefront of one’s mind. Although Book of Iron contains tragedy, it is not of itself tragic. But it takes on a different cast in light of its sister novella: all those inevitable endings mean the novella’s last spoken words—Bijou, to Salamander: “You are never alone”—are both piercing, and bittersweet.
Book of Iron is a joy to read. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Book of Iron is available this month from Subterranean press.
Read an excerpt from the novella here on Tor.com!