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The Scarlet Tides by David Hair

November 27, 2014 2 comments

The Scarlet Tides

As a metaphor, you could see war as a form of scarlet tide as waves of blood push across the shore towards the land, overwhelming the people. Or if you were already on the sand, you might see an army of soldiers dressed in red as matching the description. The Scarlet Tides by David Hair (Jo Fletcher/Quercus, 2014) is the second book in The Moontide Quartet. This is another of these books that was published in England in 2013, but did not make it to America until 2014. I’m therefore reading this one year after it first appeared and publishing this review almost one year after my review of the first in the tetralogy. Although my memory is very good about some things, I confess considerable haziness when I picked up this latest installment. Although I remembered the first book as very good, I could not remember very much of the detail. That meant the failure of the publisher to include a brief summary of the first book weighed heavily on me. There was not even a hint let alone a brief note explaining who everyone was and how they were related to each other. Yes, there are odd explanatory references as you read the text, but it did take me quite a while to build up any confidence I had worked out who was who, and which side everyone was on — not that people stay on the same side, of course. This memory problem was exacerbated by the sheer number of people referred to and the number of different locations to try fitting into the development of the plot.

However, with that reservation out of the way, I’m able to report this as the best fantasy book of 2014 so far. I was somewhat concerned that the world-building in the first book left quite a lot of the physics of the moon and its effect on the tides somewhat obscure. This does occasionally seek to rectify this omission. Other than that, there’s only one major innovation in this book. We’d already seen that the mages had the power to construct different types of animals. This has included beasts of burden and flying animals with the lifting capacity to carry a human. We now meet a new type which, in effect, draws on the mythology of this alternate Earth for its form. As a result, the primary focus of this book the development of the characters as they struggle to survive and/or advance their agendas. The only time the plot slows down is when it becomes necessary for a new person or group to begin to understand how the system of magic works. So instead of having the “Hogwarts” style of formal academic training we saw in the first book, we have more one-to-one teaching. This is saved from becoming boringly repetitious because, in each instance, the practical teaching is actually a mechanism for creating mutual trust and the possibility of affection, if not love.

David Hair

David Hair

So we advance into the more everyday world of the Crusade as the army makes progress across the desert. As we readers already know, the locals are rather better prepared this time around and it’s interesting to watch exactly how far the army gets before it realises there’s real opposition. To give us an insight into the life for the boots on the ground, we’re allowed Ramon as the point of view and his Ponzi scheme to ramp up the value of his spurious letters of credit by stockpiling the year’s opium crop is a delight. In terms of its breadth and daring, I was reminded of Catch-22 and Milo’s Syndicate which even accepted commissions for American planes to bomb American bases. In one of the geographically significant states, we watch the ebb and flow of Gurvon Gyle’s efforts to deal with the Dorobon family and advance his own plans for power. As for the other groups, the search for the McGuffin accelerates with more people becoming aware of its existence. How it’s lost and then comes back into the possession of one of the good guys is another very pleasing sequence. At some point, later in the series, they will work out what it does and how to persuade it to do it. At this point, no-one has a clue how it might work.

Taking the overview, the pace and quality of the writing makes this one of the best epic fantasies for a long time. It should go without saying that you should not attempt to read this unless you have also read the first in the series, Mage’s Blood. The experience is so much better when you’ve got the whole story straight in your head. If you do not read any other fantasy book this year, ensure you read The Scarlet Tides.

For a review of the first in the series, see Mage’s Blood.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell

November 14, 2014 2 comments

The Severed Streets

There are times you read a book and you know in your bones there’s a good story in the content, but it’s buried and left unfulfilled. Well, The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell (Tor, 2014) Shadow Police 2, is just such a book. Following on from London Falling, our team of four are doing their best to adjust to the reality of their newly acquired supernatural powers. So, if you wanted a thumbnail sketch of the book, this is a dark fantasy grafted on to a police procedural. In theory, this is a good blend because stolid and, up to the moment their eyes are literally opened to the “reality” around them, reliable police officers (plus one intelligence analyst). Suddenly they have to adjust their thinking to accommodate the “impossible”.

In this case, we have a beastie on the loose which may be the original Jack the Ripper or a new incarnation of some sort that wants the world to label him or her as a modern version of Jack. Either way, this razor-wielding creature literally passes through walls and the sides of motorcars, hacking away at the white powerful men inside. Ah yes, you noticed the difference. Instead of killing prostitutes, this modern Jack has a completely different agenda. At this point, it’s appropriate to point out the have-your-cake-and-eat-it approach of the author. I don’t mind him creating characters who can see a different version of reality as an overlay on the London around them, but I strenuously reject the idea that this alternate reality could be captured by digital cameras and then viewed by our “sighted” heroes. Supernatural powers vested in an individual by an accidental exposure to a trigger give the sight. Digital cameras, no matter how advanced their design, cannot see supernatural events and, if they could record them, they would presumably then be visible to all viewers.

Paul Cornell

Paul Cornell

It’s this kind of annoying lack of logic that bedevils the book. That and the fact it’s badly overwritten in the first third so that the pace is leaden and the development of scenes interminably boring, e.g. in the pub called the Goat and Compass. There’s also one other seriously odd element. In historical mysteries, it’s relatively common for real-world characters to appear. This is the first time I can remember a living person featuring as a character. In this case, we meet Neil Gaiman who proves to have an important role to play as the plot develops. Of course, Paul Cornell asked Neil Gaiman for permission and got approval for the use of his name. For some, I suppose, this adds an extra frisson of excitement. I thought it a dissonant note. If you are writing fiction with a dark fantasy twist, including a real person as a player is crossing the line between fiction and reality. I don’t think it works at all.

That said, the basic plot is sound with a nicely balanced threat to destabilise London as an excuse for imposing a little more order — the usual right-wing conspiracy theory made real by a man able to manipulate the zeitgeist and hack into dreams to see where there may be problems to solve. Some of this works really well as we progress into the second third of the book and the pace picks up. There are stresses and strains on the group of four police officers, and one inadvertently finds a very original way of interviewing the key characters who can speak truth and out the villain of the piece. So I’m faced with a minor problem. Because it finishes strongly, I could deem the whole a success. Or I could declare the flaws to be sufficiently serious that I cannot recommend the book. On balance, with some reservations, I think there’s enough good to make The Severed Streets worth reading. Perhaps more importantly, it’s been left in a very interesting position so the next book in the series will be starting off from a good position.

For a review of the first in the series, see London Falling.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2014 edited by Paula Guran

September 11, 2014 Leave a comment

Computer designed grunge border and aged textured background

The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2014 edited by Paula Guran (Prime Books, 2014) begins auspiciously with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem, which is a magnificent piece of atmosphere writing, filled with menace. All that happens is that a mother and her son stand by a field of wheat, but it’s an unforgettable experience. “Blue Amber” by David J. Schow takes us to a place where the bridgehead has been established and answers the question of how best to spread the infection. It’s a raw adrenaline fight and flight. “The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed drops the pace slightly with a group of girl scouts that goes AWOL on a forested mountainside. Later a bus tour brings some rich men hoping they’ll be able to find some of those girls to rescue. The result is probably not what either side would have wanted. “The Good Husband” by Nathan Ballingrud flirts rather admirably with the distinction between a zombie and a vampire as a husband comes upon his wife as she’s committing suicide (again). This time, however, he decides not to save her. Except sometimes, wives don’t take being ignored lying down. “The Soul in the Bell Jar” by K. J. Kabza has a great-niece coming to visit her uncle in the Gothic splendour of the family manse while her parents go away on holiday. Here she’s not to touch anything and to avoid the vivifieds. The house cats and horses nay be safe to interact with. The result is a singularly over-the-top romp through the rotting pile, discovering secrets as she goes. “The Creature Recants” by Dale Bailey is the delightfully unexpected backstory to the shooting of the original film version of Creature from the Black Lagoon. It has a pleasing sense of humour, tinged with sadness.

Nights grow long in the Alaskan tooth in “Termination Dust” by Laird Barron. Here we’re playing in the Ripper sandbox as different versions of what might have been play out across the years. As always with this author, an intriguing game is being played. “Postcards from Abroad” by Peter Atkins succeeds because it’s completely naturalistic. The young man with a heart of gold from Liverpool puts down supernatural nasties when they get to be a nuisance. The dry wit is a delight. “Phosphorous” by Veronica Schanoes is historical horror detailing the appalling conditions in which the matchmakers worked in Victorian London. When the phosphorous got into their bones, death followed quite quickly. “A Lunar Labyrinth” by Neil Gaiman is a pleasing story that creeps up on you, as if you were walking through a maze and suddenly felt you might not be entirely alone. “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlín R. Kiernan is an intriguing piece of metafiction with literary overtones as our movie critic sits through a classic piece of horror and thinks about the review she will write.

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson is a terrific piece of classic fantasy showing the need to follow simple rules to the letter when it comes to dealing with shades. It’s a short masterclass in how to write dark fantasy. “The Plague” by Ken Liu is short science fiction at its best as the nanobots prove they know what’s best for survival. “The Gruesome Affair of the Electric Blue Lightning” by Joe R. Lansdale answers the simple question of what August Dupin would make of the Necronomicon should he be able to lay hands upon it and, more importantly, read from it. Watch out Old Ones, the Great Detective is barring the way! “Let My Smile Be Your Umbrella” by Brian Hodge has our first-person narrator track down a girl whose celebrity depends on a slow-motion suicide attempt. By coincidence, when he arrives and first sees her, he discovers there’s so much more to learn about her. Perhaps he’ll be endlessly fascinated. “Air, Water and the Grove” by Kaaron Warren is a very elegant science fiction story of the metamorphosis that occurs when the rocket bringing back samples from Saturn is destroyed in our atmosphere. It may all look beautiful, but living that life is a one-way trip to the grove.

“A Little of the Night” by Tanith Lee considers whether a vacuum of nothingness is comparable to a vampire, sucking the positives of life into the nothingness beyond. If such is not too poetical a fancy, how would you fight such a phenomenon? The answer here is rather beautifully explored in true mythic style. “A Collapse of Horses” by Brian Evenson is a Schrödinger’s cat story. Following an accident in which his head was injured, our hero has difficulty in distinguishing what’s real, e.g. are the fallen horses dead? This shows how you should deal with this uncertainty. “Pride” by Glen Hirshberg is an interesting story about collectors and what drives them to put the collection together. It also deals with the complex situation in which a collector loses an item from the collection. “Our Lady of Ruins” by Sarah Singleton wonders what happens when some people disappear for years after they wander into the woods. This is an intriguing take on the fey trope and asks whether love can transcend separation if memory returns. “The Marginals” by Steve Duffy finds a different way of exploring the nature of existence. Some people seem to leave our conventional society and are only visible when they stay too long in one place or are drawn to a particular place. Perhaps they are dead. “Dark Gardens” by Greg Kurzawa is a remarkably effective piece. The image of the hatch as an opening into our word and what lies beneath is managed magnificently. “Rag and Bone” by Priya Sharma is another piece of history but, this time, we’re in an alternate reality and the poor are bought by the rich for their organs. It’s always been a tough life in Liverpool. “The Slipway Gray” by Helen Marshall reflects the fact death can come in many form and, sometimes, if it’s your lucky day, it passes you by. “To Die for Moonlight” by Sarah Monette is a nicely judged story of two families, both cursed, who speculate that if they intermarry, the curses may cancel each other out. Obviously our hero knows what his curse is but what exactly troubles the young lady?

“Cuckoo” by Angela Slatter sees a body-hopping, vengeance-seeking creature find a victim and seek out the man who had killed her. Now there’s just one thing she wants or needs from him before she kills him. “Fishwife” by Carrie Vaughn draws its strength from the inexorable predicability of the outcome. People who are so desperate always pay the price. “The Dream Detective” by Lisa Tuttle is outstandingly intelligent as a man meets the detective both in the real world and in his dreams. At first, there seems to be no problem, but that’s before the dreams take a darker turn. “Event Horizon” by Sunny Moraine is such a simple idea but it’s presented with significant verve such that, just as in science fiction stories when the space ship is on the cusp of a black hole, the ship and its passengers are never able to pull free. “Moonstruck” by Karin Tidbeck indicates a collision between the metaphorical and the literal as a young girl becomes convinced the moon’s strange behaviour is somehow linked to her first period. “The Ghost Makers” by Elizabeth Bear is a classical fantasy of wizards and high magic as two “warriors” fight to prevent the sorcerer from adding to his collection of souls. It’s beautifully written with a poetic cast and an unflinching eye. “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee continues in high fantasy mode with a spy recovering a lexicon from a magician only to find the words may presage an invasion. The semiotic question, of course, is what happens to the language of magic over time and, if it does change or evolve, how would you keep track of it. The answer here is delightfully elegant. All you have to do is understand the true nature of the word “defeat”.

When looking back at this anthology, one fact stands out. Darkness can be found in any situation whether it be historical fact, fantastical or science fictional. So although the title suggests a limitation to fantasy and/or horror, we actually get a demonstration of the diverse range of situations in which the world of the rational slips away, leaving only fear and menace behind. I’m indebted to Paul Guran as editor in producing such a fine assembly of stories. Many deserve to be shortlisted for awards as recognition for their quality. Of course, I might cavil at one or two of the choices where the plot doesn’t quite cohere or the execution is overlong, but such differences in opinion are inevitable in an anthology this long. This does not prevent me from recommending this anthology as superb value for money for anyone who enjoys the darker side of fiction.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Dust and Light by Carol Berg

August 8, 2014 6 comments

Dust And Light by Carol Berg

Dust and Light by Carol Berg (Roc, 2014) (The Sanctuary Duet 1) is set in the same world as the duology of Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone which jointly won the Mythopoeic Award in 2009. In this first-person narrative, we join Lucian de Remeni-Masson as he falls from grace and slowly begins to find his feet again. He’s one of the children of high-status parents who’s never really had to worry about anything. He’s just bumbled happily along, never really feeling under pressure to learn anything or refine his magical skills. There was one minor peccadillo when he went to University. A young girl caught his eye. . . But his father was quick to intervene, smoothed over ruffled feathers, and found him a place where he could draw and paint, working for The PureBlood Registry. His skill, you see, is to use his magic to see the truth of those he draws. Should he see anything too unfortunate, he’s quick to apologise and adjust the picture when he comes back to himself. For the most part, this is a quiet and undemanding role, leaving him plenty of time to enjoy family life.

 

As in most books of this type, this quiet life is rudely shattered when only he and his younger sister avoid being killed when the rest of the family gathers together in another city. To compound the problems, he quickly find his sinecure at the registry terminated and his contract sold for a fraction of its value to Bastien de Caton, who serves the King as the coroner of Palinur. Going from high privilege to the necropolis is, in itself, an almost insupportable blow to his pride. But when he begins to draw the dead, he’s accused of deliberately underperforming to escape the contract. Of course, this accusation outrages the pompous one, who stoutly defends the quality of his work. Except he’s a little surprised at exactly what he’s been able to draw. There seems to be a lot of detail in the uniforms and style of dress that would only be apparent if he were somehow able to commune with the dead.

Carol Berg

Carol Berg

 

The first real sign of trouble comes when he draws a picture of a young girl. The coroner is reluctant to trust the image because it suggests this was a girl of real privilege. Yet, so far as he knows, all the nobility are accounted for. No-one of importance has been reported missing. But when the matter is tested by our hero producing a second drawing, it’s clear this is the drawing of one of the royal bastards. This more formally sets us off on the dual trail. First we have to discover who’s out to wreck the career of our young innocent. Then we have to discover who strangled this girl.

 

For all this is sold as a fantasy novel, it’s really a political thriller. With the death of the old King of Navronne, the two sons embark on a civil war to decide the question of succession. Over the generations, the families who have been lucky enough to develop magical powers sell their allegiance to whoever is rich enough to pay for them. Obviously, the best work for the nobility. Lucian’s father was a cartographer to the old king. One of the royal sons might wonder whether Lucian might be able to find lost treasures. This sets up a certain tension between some of the nobility who might see people like Lucian as a necessity to progress their own interests, while others see them as dangerous. In theory, the magicians preserve their neutrality by keeping to themselves. This is signalled to the world by their habit of going out in public wearing a mask. They are supposed to fly above the rough and tumble of political life. Except, of course, few can live in a society without being ambitious for power and success. This can mean neutrality is inconvenient. Some will take sides. Others like Lucian who was essentially inexperienced and somewhat naive are potentially just canon fodder, liable to be used and discarded as required. So, this is a form of coming-of-age story in which a young man is stripped of his dignity and slowly comes to realise he must start on a journey, both physical and metaphorical, to discover who he is and what powers he’s able to command if he takes them seriously. The result is both a very pleasing mystery in which a murder must be solved, and a nicely balanced political situation as the various factions try to manoeuvre themselves into the best position. Dust and Light is an impressive start to this latest episode in this fantasy world, leaving everything completely in the balance as we wait for the second instalment due in 2015.

 

For reviews of other books by Carol Berg see:
Breath and Bone
The Daemon Prism
Flesh and Spirit
The Soul Mirror
The Spirit Lens.

 

The Undead Pool by Kim Harrison

August 1, 2014 1 comment

The Undead Pool

The Undead Pool by Kim Harrison (The Hollows 12) (Harper Collins, 2014) is what I’m supposed to label urban fantasy but, having ploughed through it, the reality is more romance than anything else. Although we’re dealing with a complex world of mixed species — supernatural and human — with different types of magic on display, I found the characters completely uninvolving and the fantasy weak and wimpy. I suppose this is a gender phenomenon. This author has been churning out books which hit the New York Bestseller lists, so I’m forced to conclude she has a loyal group of female fans who lap up this “heady” mixture of sex and magical mystery. As a mere male, it left me completely cold.

 

Our hero, Rachel Morgan, is a female demon. As this book begins, she’s been providing security for long-time love interest, the top elf in Cincinnati, Trent Kalamack. So far, despite all the temptation, they have only managed a kiss, but the storm signs have already been raised. Deeper sexual attraction is in the wind and likely to sweep all before it. The “problem” is the presence of Ellasbeth. There’s a political move to displace Trent from the elven ruling council because of his “association” with the demon. The price for retaining all his wealth, power and influence is marriage to Ellasbeth. If Trent were to comply, it would obviously be emotionally devastating to Rachel but, in the interests of keeping the peace, she’s preparing herself for the loss.

Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison

 

Except, of course, there’s a real brew of magical mayhem in the cauldron. While she’s on the golf course, she discovers the hard way that her magic is suddenly rather unexpectedly stronger than she was expecting. What’s supposed to be a simple spell to deflect an incoming golfball from the tee, explodes the ball and leaves a new sandtrap just waiting for the sand. This is the first sign of a wave of what overstimulates every spell as it’s being performed. To add to the disturbance to the force, all the master vampires fall asleep. This is going to kill them and, more importantly, leave the rank and file vampires without anyone to control them.

 

All this leads to opportunities for characters to build friendships and alliances while being prepared to make sacrifices if the situation requires it. When interests are threatened, it’s all going to come down to people making the best decisions they can, hoping they can trust those they work with. Needless to say, love prevails with Rachel and Trent finally coming together at the end. A bitterly frustrated Ellasbeth leaves the city with nothing (and not before time, some might say). I find myself slightly puzzled at my lack of response to this book. Objectively, the author is doing the right things. There’s a mixture of adventure situations with magic thrown in to add a little extra spice. Except despite there being opportunities for our couple to be in danger (including quite a long sequence when our couple on horseback are hunted by demons), I was bored. For some reason, the tone of the book fails to even vaguely resonate with me. When I’m looking for some excitement (any excitement), all I find is flat, functional narrative prose and characters who fail to inspire any interest. Given the vast popularity of this author, I acknowledge I’m on the losing side of this debate. So I will make my usual apologies and leave this book to the legion of women readers who obviously lap up this type of urban fantasy as if it’s the best thing since the invention of sliced bread.

 

This book was sent to me for review.

 

The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers

July 23, 2014 5 comments

The_Drawing_of_the_Dark_by_Tim_Powers

The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers (Subterranean Press, 2014) is a reprint of a book that first appeared in 1979 (yes this author is beginning to get a little long in the tooth). So while you can expect some of the writing style and flourishes that have become trademarks, this is the third book by an author of just twenty-five summers. It’s reasonably good, but don’t expect it to be one of the greatest books by Powers. As you might expect, we’re in an alternate version of Europe in the sixteenth century with Brian Duffy, an Irish mercenary, who’s been trudging from one fight to another for many a year. After minor difficulty in Venice, he accepts a job from Aurelianus as a “bouncer” (an interesting anachronism) in the Vienna inn where the famous Nertzwesten Beer is brewed. Unfortunately, this job coincides with the arrival of Suleiman the Magnificent accompanied by the pick of the Ottoman Empire’s army. This gives us our theme of West vs. East with physical forces and magical powers (pun intended) ranged against each other with the fate of Europe in the balance. For those of you interested in the history, Vienna did come under siege in 1529 and the failure to win decisively produced a loss of momentum. Had Vienna fallen, the Ottoman forces could probably have overrun the major European armies and produced an empire of vassal states.

Using the history as an excuse, Powers has both sides pulling out the best (and worst) of their magical weaponry. For the West, the defence hinges on the the ability of Merlin, acting on the instructions of the Fisher King, to find the reincarnated Arthur and let him lead the fight for the future of the West. During the course of the book, it becomes obvious that several other “heroes” have been reincarnated, or are guided by their supernatural abilities, to spend a few months in Vienna to help in the fight. However, as is always the case once you open the mythic box, the lineage of heroes has centuries to draw on and we also get a brief view of the Norse gods as well. As the physical battle reaches its climax, the magical forces also lock horns (and anything else they can fight with). It’s not a spoiler to reveal the book stays true to the historical outcome to this siege.

Tim Powers in the light against the dark

Tim Powers in the light against the dark

As linear narrative historical fantasies go, this is reasonably well constructed and the plot dynamics all come together well in the climatic battle. There’s also some humour — the description of the hunchback’s funeral is a gem to treasure. But there are one of two fairly major flaws. As everyone will quickly realise, our hero Brian Duffy is the reincarnated Arthur but, to prolong the suspense, this is not revealed to him until quite a way through the book. The problem for the reader, therefore, is to reconcile the character we first meet with with occasional glimpses of the Arthur legend tells us to expect. Since he’s profoundly stubborn, Brian lives in denial of his “heritage” and mostly manages to keep his own personality and fighting abilities to the fore. I’m not sure this is managed successfully, particularly because we have a doomed love affair with the Guinevere reincarnation. To my jaded eyes, this is not handled well. And compounding all the problems with character, I’m still not quite sure what the effect of the dark is supposed to be. The brewery in Vienna which is the real target for the invaders, not the city, produces three varieties of beer. Needless to say, the dark is the most potent and needs a long time to complete its “fermentation”. But having arrived at the end, there are two issues left unexplained. First, the production process for all three beers seems almost entirely supernatural. I was expecting a real brewery but this is completely unreal without any hint of how it’s supposed to produce enough beer to keep the city and its troops supplied throughout the siege. Second, the book finishes before the dark is ready to be drunk and we therefore have no understanding of who gets to drink it, why they would drink it, and what the results are. Unless its only function is to keep the Fisher King alive which, in turn, will keep the spirits of the West high. But that would not explain why others have drunk it before and are now pestering Merlin for more of it now. Since the beer features in the title, you would think the author would have condescended to explain it a little better.

So here comes the short summary. I read The Skies Discrowned when it first came out and didn’t bother picking up the next two books by Powers. Fortunately, I did buy a copy of The Anubis Gates and, for the most part, I’ve been a fan of Powers ever since. The Drawing of the Dark has its moments, but it’s fairly generic historical fiction by modern standards. If you’re a Powers completist, you will buy this to get a sight of the early writer at work. If you have not yet tried Powers, this is not the right place to start. Read The Anubis Gate first to see whether you like his approach.

For reviews of other books by Tim Powers, see:
Hide Me Among the Graves
Nobody’s Home
Salvage and Demolition
and for a review of the film adaptation: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011).

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear

June 13, 2014 10 comments

steles-the-sky-by-elizabeth-bear-498x750

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.

Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear

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:
ad eternum
Book of Iron
A Companion to Wolves (with Sarah Monette)
Range of Ghosts
Seven for a Secret
Shattered Pillars
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.

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