Shattered Pillars by Elizabeth Bear
This time, it’s appropriate to start with a moment of sadness. I thought Range of Ghosts, the first in The Eternal Sky Trilogy, was good enough to be nominated for Best Fantasy novel in all the top awards for 2012 but, as seems increasingly the case, my taste is out of step with the youngsters who vote for these things. Obviously it wasn’t this author’s turn to be recognized. And now a note for those who are interested in background trivia: an explanation of the title. In the mythology of this world, the sky is said to ride high on four pillars: The Range of Ghosts, the Shattered Pillars and the Steles of the Sky (the title of the final book in the trilogy). These are ranges of mountains and the fourth support may well be a range near Messaline called the Bitter Root.
As a beginning to this review for Shattered Pillars by Elizabeth Bear (Tor, 2013), I must remind you of the plot. Re-Temur is the grandson of the Great Khan and the legitimate heir by blood to his grandfather’s throne but, having no military allies, he’s weaker than his uncle, Qori Buqa Khan, who usurps power. Once-Princess Samarkar was sent to be the wife of a Prince in Song. She’s now one of the Wizards of Tsarepheth and travelling with Temur. Because this is a fantasy, he’s on a quest to rescue Edene, the woman he loves. He believes she’s a prisoner in the fortress of Ala-Din. As is always the way in these days when the djinns will not pass on useful news, Temur and Samarkar are intent on discovering a way into the fortress and establishing a base from which Temur can raise his banner and call troops to his side to fight for the throne. This leads them on a political mission to seek legitimacy and information. This book is therefore more jaw-jaw than war-war.
This means a quite dramatic shift of scale. In Hollywood terms, the Range of Ghosts is one of these Cinemascope epics in which horses are the basis of the culture on this version of the Steppes as we charge across the vastness of the landscape. Because Temur is on the run, it’s all about survival. This book is smaller in scale and more intimate as the group tries to move on to a more positive footing. One of the consequences is a lack of room to allow all the characters from the first book to shine here. The warrior priest Hsuing and the Cho-Tse tigress Hrahima essentially tag along for the ride until they can flex their muscles in a fight near the end. Further down the Road, the city of Tsarepheth is under magical attack with a plague of demons birthed in the lungs of those who contract the vectoring disease. Once they eat their way out of their victims, the demons are entering the city and causing chaos. This is a beautifully managed balance between magic and science, with the question of control over the city state always in the balance.
Economically and philosophically, we’re reliving the days of The Silk Road and the Mongol Empire. This version of history calls the primary route the Celadon Highway. Secure extended trade routes are the glue that hold disparate groups of people together across a continent. This is not just to permit the exchange of goods representing the best each country can offer, it’s also the mechanism that enables the growth of civilisations through the accumulation of wisdom. So long as people remain isolated from each other, they can convince themselves they have achieved perfection in their view of the world and how it works. The moment they are exposed to the ideas of one other country, they realise they may not have had a monopoly on wisdom. Naturally this is unsettling. When multiple competing cultures announce their presence, each individual state must adapt or die, admit ignorance and learn from the others. The question of succession to the Khan’s throne is therefore disrupting trade and bringing economic hardship to all those who depend on commerce for their living. To get things running smoothly again is the primary political aim. Unfortunately, the right people are not yet in the right place with the right level of military support to resolve matters.
At this point, I need to say a few words about gender politics. Ostensibly this trilogy is continuing in the patriarchal mould with a male hero and evil antagonist. No matter how far back you go into classical mythology, this has been the pattern with women introduced to be rescued or to sit patiently until their husbands come home. There are, of course, exceptions. But, with the storytellers largely male, the stereotypes of strong leadership and wisdom are ultimately confirmed in the men, while the women are there for decoration or producing lots of babies to continue the family’s control of wealth and land ownership. What makes this trilogy interesting is the strength of Edene who frees herself from captivity, Samarkar who keeps saving Re-Temur, Hrahima who fights with calm efficiency, and Ashra who proves that wisdom can shine through even when death looms. Even Tsering proves indispensable as the magician Hong-la might not quite have all the insights necessary to resolve the medical and political problems in Tsarepheth. We even have a new entrant in Ümmühan who has been playing literally and metaphorically behind the scenes.
In the usual fantasy written by men, our hero has to rescue his woman. That reaffirms the traditional roles of dominance and subservience. This convention is slowly being subverted. Having managed to get Edene pregnant before she was carried off, Re-Temur has a dual responsibility to his wife and heir. It’s just unfortunate that she’s rescued herself and has gone off to take command of her own army while he’s now realising the strength of Samarkar. Their burgeoning relationship is not supposed to be in the script. Monogamy is the norm in family values books, yet a political “alliance” with Samarkar may be expedient. As an ironic aside, Re-Temur also owes his life to a female horse who’s obviously far more than she appears. In this trilogy, you just can’t keep the female of any of the species down. Females are both power and weakness. As in the case of the Empress of Tsarepheth, the dynamic balance between these binary opposites is achieved because redemption is always possible.
Taken overall, Shattered Pillars shows Elizabeth Bear continuing her beautiful prose in pursuit of a most elegantly designed world in which magic and politics are the weapons of choice for those who want to rule. Although this lacks the breathless excitement of the first volume, this is a necessary regrouping before we launch into the expected excitement of the concluding volume.
For reviews of other books by Elizabeth Bear, see:
Book of Iron
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 Tor book is by Donato Giancola.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.