Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear
Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear (Tor, 2014) brings the Eternal Sky trilogy to a conclusion. I want to start by talking about the prose which is rather more poetic than is usual in modern epic fantasy. In part, this is due to the decision to conflate One-Thousand-and-One Nights with the horse culture of the Steppes. This gives us the tough life of the nomad as the bedrock of the book while magic resonates throughout the land and, somewhat unusually, the sky. This is the first time I can remember reading a series in which the sky changes both according to location, and as key characters rise and fall. This metaphor is pleasing. As the new generation is born, new stars or moons appear. As their status changes, the sky can signal its approval or disapproval. Equally stars can fall and moons can fail to rise come nightfall. What makes all this work over the trilogy is the detail of the different cultures that come together to form this particular world of magic and war. So many books play in the mediaeval European setting with the politics of principalities and petty kingdoms fighting over the bones of a fractured empire. This is a world of long history with ruined cities and the lost dragon road, and our equivalent of the Mongol hordes ride across the plains between more modern cities. Always remember the history of worlds like this is always slightly unreliable for a number of different reasons. That said, each of the current cultures on display feels plausible given the lifestyle and the level of technology, both real and magical. You can’t give higher praise than this.
So where are we with the plot? Re Temur and Samarkar continue in their struggle to reach Dragon Lake where they intend to raise the banner to unit the opposition to al-Sepehr as he wages war in the name of the Scholar-God. Edene with the djin in involuntary attendance is bringing the Ghulam out of their underworld to fight with Re Temur. The “contaminated” monk Hsiung and Hrahima, the Cho-tse warrior, are back in attendance as are a number of key women in different parts of the landscape. This brief introduction should remind people this is a cast of characters in depth and, in substantial numbers, it’s the women who do a lot of the heavy lifting. More than in many other contemporary fantasies, this is a good step forward in demonstrating the merits of gender equality. Pleasingly, although these characters are to some extent stereotypes, e.g. the leader’s wife, the poetess, the sorceress, and so on, they all transcend the usual role limitations and emerge fully-fledged into this rather dangerous world. Many face real and daunting difficulties. Some pay a serious price for the help they give. What makes the book satisfying is that the men respect the women for their achievements and never feel threatened by them. When your community is facing a hostile physical environment and war is imminent, this is not a time to worry about who’s doing what. What’s important is that everything that should get done, is done.
As an example of the complexity of the emotional issues to be resolved, we should take the mutual affection of Temur and Samarkar which runs on into this book only to be redefined when Edene finally catches up with them. She has, of course, birthed Temur’s son and has certain expectations about her position by her husband’s side. In every aspect of this book, we see people living with the consequences of early decisions. So, for example, Hsiung continues to find himself barely able to control the contamination that came from his previous studies. That’s why he has to take a short leave of absence as this volume unwinds. Similarly, others seek redemption or release from the traps in which they find themselves. Lurking at the end, there are always sacrifices to be made, some more painful than others. Even the appearance of a dragon does not quite play out along the expected lines.
I confess to finding this rather slow until we get into the final third. But once we are set upon the road into the final battle, everything comes sharply into focus and the end itself is quite unexpected for those of us who have had so many fantasies dot every i and cross their ts on the way to a triumphant conclusion. This is not to deny the triumphant qualities of this ending, but it’s perhaps not quite what you might have predicted. On balance, even though I think Steles of the Sky takes too long to get going, there’s considerable power in this particular conclusion and the trilogy must rank as one of the more successful of the last decade. Elizabeth Bear may not be Brandon Sanderson, but this is a high quality piece of work for a modern fantasist to produce.
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
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.