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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.

Shattered Pillars by Elizabeth Bear

Shattered Pillars

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.

Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear

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:
ad eternum
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.

Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

June 17, 2012 3 comments

Wonderful jacket artwork from Donato Giancola

 

Modern authors are always under pressure to come up with the next big thing. Back in the Golden Age of pulps, it was easier. Editors would send out messages to all the writers on their lists demanding twenty short stories by the end of the month, and “some of them damn well better be good!” In this scatter gun approach to publishing, there was an incredible volume of pure crud — see Sturgeon’s Law — but equally a small percentage of wonderfully inventive fiction. All you had to do as a reader was filter out the rubbish to get to the good stuff. Today we’ve got the reverse problem. Instead of there being several hundred magazine and publishing houses churning out books by the thousands, there are only a few. With tens of thousands of wanna-be authors and slush piles growing ever taller, this puts terrible pressure on editors to pick only the good stuff. To get noticed and become one of the few people published today, authors need a mixture of craft and creativity. In terms of plotting, there’s very little that hasn’t already been done to death. So the skill of an author is to take an idea and dress it up in a slightly different way so we won’t notice it’s not very original.

 

I start in this way because, in these days of mashups with Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter just about to hit the big screen, Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear (TOR, 2012) has managed to come up with something rather unusual. Most fantasy stories fall into very predictable formats as the fight promoters match up the Hero with the Dark Lord in the best of three falls. Magic will be allowed but not necessarily gouging or cowardly blows. There may be elves or other “folk” who take sides in the good vs. evil contest, a wiseacre will advise the Hero who often has to come out of his/her shell and discover the strength within before being able to vanquish the forces of evil, there should be a quest, and there will be a love interest which may help or hinder the Hero at the whim of the author. So, to provide variety, Elizabeth Bear has hit on the idea of Genghis Khan vs. Aladdin, i.e. of conflating the excitement of horse-born armies thundering across the Steppes with the tropes of One Thousand and One Nights. This is not entirely unfair because, once the Mongol Hordes got going, they occupied a goodly chunk of Central Asia and many of the myths and legends that ended up in the Arabian Nights originated from that region.

Elizabeth Bear on display with a book at Eurocon

 

We start with the battle for the city of Qarash between claimants to the throne of the Khagan. Quori Buqa’s army smashes the defensive forces led by Qulan and levels the city. Timur is one of the few left alive. As the Khagan’s grandson, he’s potentially in line for succession to the throne, but that’s not on his mind as he slowly moves away from the military disaster. The practicalities of survival dominate. He’s adopted by a small kin group and, after a short courtship, falls into a relationship with Edene. What he does not know is that Quori Buqa is being assisted by Al-Sepehr, a powerful wizard (when he communicates with Quori Buqa, he uses the name Ala-Din). Having used the human armies to generate death on an industrial scale, our wizard can raise them as an army of ghosts as did his forebear Sepehr al-Racid ibn Sepehr. This puts the wizard in a potentially dominant position, but the actual process is very tiring. Hence, there’s still a need for human agents. To keep options open, a platoon of ghosts is sent to kidnap Timur. Unfortunately, he fights back. Frustrated, the ghosts carry off Edene instead. This sets Timur off on a quest to find his lost partner. On the way, he meets up with Samarkar, a newly qualified wizard, and they must defend themselves as individuals and seek to make the world safe from the ghost army. For Quori Buqa, his nephew Timur is an unfortunate loose end. The tribes will not unite while a legitimate claimant to the throne is still alive. He therefore demands Ala-Din kills his rival. This drive for unity in the tribes is not what Al-Sepehr has been working towards but, perhaps, that’s what Fate demands and there will be other ways to destabilise the Mongol Empire.

 

Range of Ghosts is firmly rooted in the culture of nomadic tribes so, with everything filtered through the experience of a man who’s spent his life on and around horses, it’s hardly surprising we get such a detailed picture of life, literally from the ground up. It’s actually worth reading just to get a feel for the life on the Steppes. Even the horses get to be real people. As a piece of meticulous background research, it reminded me of Until the Sun Falls by Cecilia Holland which is straight historical fiction. To find such impressive detail in a work of fantasy is even more delightful as the wizard’s manipulation of the Khagan succession and life on the Steppes reaches a critical juncture. Once the magic kicks in, we get a wonderful blend as our heroic group of Mongol Prince, apprentice wizard, Cho-tse and kung fu monk have to fend off assassins and the attack of a rukh or roc as they make their way across the war-torn Empire. It’s all great fun and one of the best fantasy books I’ve read so far this year.

 

The jacket artwork by Donato Giancola is particularly fine.

 

For reviews of other books by Elizabeth Bear, see:
ad eternum
Book of Iron
A Companion to Wolves (with Sarah Monette)
Seven for a Secret
Shattered Pillars
Shoggoths in Bloom
Steles of the Sky
The Tempering of Men (with Sarah Monette)
The White City

 

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