I have to admit that the first time I read this book, I liked the characters and the ambiance, but I ended up so confused by all of the players that I couldn't follow the plot very well at all. Halfway through, I looked up all of the characters of the King Arther mythologies on Wikipedia and made myself a cheat-sheet, because the author clearly expects you to already know who everyone is related to and why they hate each other. The second time I read it, after I had figured this all out, I absolutely adored it.
The characters are vibrant, sexy, and interesting, and the book fairly glows with color. The imagery is intense and the plot equally so.
One pet peeve: ***contains spoilers!!!*** Only someone who has never lived in New York would think of Times Square as the crossroads of the world. For the natives, it's just an ugly tourist trap in the middle of the monotonous business district.
I do not generally read either Arthurian fantasy or books about the Fae; I read this purely because I have greatly enjoyed Elizabeth Bear in the past and I was able to get a copy cheap. Unfortunately, the book suffered (for me) from too many references that I did not understand. I do not know the ballads everyone talks about and gains their knowledge from, and they weren't provided in an index (which is something I would have recommended to the publisher had they asked my opinion). So throughout the book the characters seemed to be reminding each other of things in shorthand that just went completely over my head.
But then there were moments that the characters stopped to explain things to each other in ways that I could understand. . . but because of all the previous references that felt like the author forcing the data dump rather than providing information in a natural fashion. I could not see why some characters knew one thing but not another and vice versa. Three quarters of the way through the novel I was convinced that I would be forced to only rate it two stars, despite my usual enjoyment of Bear's writing.
But the ending made up for all lack beforehand. Bear pulled off a brilliant shift in perspective, the climax was heart-wrenching and the denouement, which seemed long when I measured the number of pages left after the final battle, brought the entire emotional story to its proper climax and resolution. In fact, looking back on the experience of the novel, despite all of the issues with the provision of information, the only real flaw it feels like it had was that Matthew seemed a somewhat wasted viewpoint character. Given that he is the feature of another novel in this series, I understand why he is there, but every time it switched to him (which was thankfully rare) I gritted my teeth a bit because his story just wasn't that interesting.
This was my first book by Elizabeth Bear. It is intended to be the first book in (I quote from Bear's website) "a sprawling same-world fantasy cycle beginning in Summer 2006 with Blood & Iron, followed in 2007 by Whiskey & Water. These books deal with the five-century-old silent war between Faerie and the iron world, and the lives altered and destroyed on either side."
I really wanted to like this book a lot, but I found it hard to get into. It was very similar, I thought, to many other books that deal with the interaction of Faerie with modern-day American life. I was reminded at many points, strongly, of Charles DeLint, and at a few points of Laurell Hamilton (no explicit sex, though, just soap-opera-esque choosing between lovers).
Basically, our protagonist, Elaine, is the Seeker of the Seelie court. It's her job to track down part-Fae in the human world, and to bring them back to Annwyn. She's got a complicated thing going on with her ex- (and father of her child), who happens to be a werewolf. She's also got a Sidhe water-horse called Whiskey bound to her, who keeps trying to seduce her. Meanwhile, a coven of human mages is trying to cut the human world off from Faerie permantly, possibly destroying it completely in the process. But there're also alliances and conflicts to consider with Hell, Heaven, the Unseelie Court, the Merlin (not who you'd expect), Arthur (who you'd expect), the Dragon of Britain, Medb (the Faerie Queen), the werewolf pack, Morgan le Fay, talking trees (a sly homage to Tolkien in there), and lots more.
Possibly too much more. I felt that the book lost focus, because it started out seeming like it was going to mostly be about the Merlin and her loyalites/decisions, but she wound up being only a small part of what eventually happened. There were too many complex characters and relationships jammed in, without time to really get to know many of the characters - althought I have to say that I did really like both Whiskey and the Merlin.
I also really liked Bear's take on the veracity of mythology... "yes, it was true, now."