“I am the Ruined Queen. Nothing of Erem can harm me. And we must drill, my soldiers. You must practice for war.”
Range of Ghosts (REVIEW), the first volume of Elizabeth Bear’s fantasy trilogy, The Eternal Sky, was something of a revelation. At once it it managed to be full of life, of individuality, yet still reminiscent of the Fantasy genre’s adventurous roots in the ’80s and ’90s with Brooks, Feist and Eddings, and beyond that to the Sword & Sorcery of Leiber and Howard. Bear’s fictional world, deeply inspired by the steppes of Mongolia, the jungles of south-east Asia and the majestic Himalayans, was as heartbreakingly beautiful as it was fun and thoughtful. In 2013, there’s little else I ask for from a Fantasy novel than that it remains inclusive and progressive. When a novel has these qualities, and also manages to echo those early touchstone novels without feeling derivative, it’s like literary heaven. I had never read a novel by Bear before, and so was sheltered from preconceptions and expectations going into Range of Ghosts. Shattered Pillars, now, has the misfortune of being judged as the sequel to a book that I consider a beacon of hope for the future of epic fantasy. I once wrote about the dangers of reader expectation, yet I begin few novels with so high a level of expectation as I did when I opened Shattered Pillars.
If Range of Ghosts was breathlessly riding an avalanche down a mountainside, Shattered Pillars is the recollection at the bottom — regathering wits, surveying the damage and preparing for the next avalanche, just rumbling at the top of mountain. Temur, Samarkar and the rest of the protagonists were very reactive in Range of Ghosts, and now, gathered in Shattered Pillars, slowing for a breath as the world no longer crumbles under their feet, they make a shift towards being more proactive, taking their destiny by the reins (literally, in some cases, as the mystery of the horse Bansh continues to grow) and acting with more agency, rather than letting the plot happen to them. This tradeoff comes at a slower pace than Range of Ghosts, at least for the first half of the novel, and, while at first it feels a bit abrupt and disappointing, the relaxed pace is balanced by some truly unsettling developments in Tsarepheth that benefit from the freedom given to Bear to slow down and explore the repercussions that the ongoing incident has on both global politics and the individuals caught in the midst of these conflicts. Across the world from Tsarepheth, Temur and co. catch their breath, but are exposed to a more labyrinthine political conflict than anything they needed to deal with in Range of Ghosts. It’s one thing to run from ghosts, fight for every inch of your survival, and something entirely different to navigate the politics of court life in a foreign country.
“Djinn,” she said. “We go to review the troops. Clothe me as befits a queen.”
“Silks and satins?” he asked, eyes sparkling like sapphires. “White brocade?”
“Armor,” she said. “And flame.”
It is important to examine the unique perspectives and challenges that being a female in the fictional world world present and how strength can be drawn from that.
There has been a long discussion about modern fantasy and gender, with the genre often coming under criticism for continuing to hang on to a tradition of male-dominated narratives showcased in many of its most famous early works, like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara. Shattered Pillars, even more than its predecessor, is full of women who are not only strong, but behave with agency and are directly responsible for many of the plot developments that drive the trilogy’s plot towards its conclusion. Temur takes something of a step back in Shattered Pillars, and more time is spent with these women. In particular, Edene, once damsel-in-distress, takes initiative for freeing herself from the Nameless cult that holds her captive, and, under the manipulative magic of a mysterious ring, gathers together an army that she hopes will allow Temur to take control of his people from his uncle, Qori Buqa Khan. Ümmühan, poet-slave, plays great games from the shadows. A Qersnyk woman named Ashra is strong for her bravery and resilience in the face of a situation that would bring almost anyone to their knees with despair. Many of the novel’s most exciting action scenes involve Samarkar or Hrahima. Bear provides a masterclass in writing strong, inspiring women by creating wants, needs and motivations in them that are complex and believable. Too often, ‘strong,’ women characters are identified only by their author falling back on shallow culturally defined ‘masculine’ qualities of strength. This perpetuates the lazy idea that ‘strong’ must adhere to the long privileged perception that physical strength (which itself should not be defined as a binary ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ trait) is the bar against which it is measured. Rather, it is important to examine the unique perspectives and challenges that being a female in the fictional world world present and how strength can be drawn from that. Hrahima is strong not only for being an intimidating six-and-a-half foot tall warrior of matchless prowess, but also for standing against the culturally held ideas of her people and choosing exile rather than conformation.
A portion of Shattered Pillars is given over to something of a love story, that, interestingly, contradicts the main quest driving forward much of the trilogy’s plot. Those who have read Range of Ghosts will recognize the precariousness of Temur’s growing relationship with Samarkar, even as they hunt down his lost love, Edene, and her kidnappers. Bear embraces this theme and handles it delicately, threading the consequences throughout the novel. Through Temur, the reader experiences a young man as he grows to adulthood and gradually unfolds the mysteries of young love, of lust and the attraction of self-determined destiny, discovering the power of love that is slowly gathered and nurtured through compassion and mutual experience. This is a thematic point that has a lot of personal relevance and reminds me, in many ways, of the languid and deeply entwined way that my wife and I fell in love. The meeting of Temur’s two loves, so very different from one another, will be tremendous.
I said more than once that, in my perfect little vision of the world, Elizabeth Bear’s novels are like the love-child of Daniel Abraham and Guy Gavriel Kay. Those are two of my favourite authors, and both epitomize why I continue to love and appreciate epic fantasy more than any other genre, but to blindly compare Bear to them is lazy and does her little justice. More interesting, then, is to explore what makes Bear’s novels, along with those from Abraham and Kay, so effectively engaging and emotionally resonant in ways that many other fantasy novels fail to achieve.
“What was a book? Not just ink and fiber and stitchery: a series of processes. To a wizard, it was not a static object—but human thought caught and bound, made concrete through a sacred technology. Magic, then, and a deep form of it.”
Ultimately, I think these successes come on the back of tremendous world-building and a respect towards myth, origin stories and storytelling’s importance at the way that culture, history and community affect and define the base presumptions and actions of various characters throughout those worlds. These are fictional places that, due to the respect given to the elements borrowed from our world’s own history, feel so grounded and concretely established that it often becomes difficult to tell the difference between the fiction and non-fiction. Bear is particularly good at pulling disparate elements from many cultures and societies (current and historical) and weaving them together in a dreamy otherworldliness that feels like it exists just on the other side of some innocuous curtain, waiting to be drawn aside by a curious hand.
Bear weaves these inspirations together, but instead of picking and choosing her myths, she has established cultures and countries that take those initial inspirations and spawn something new from them. Asia of the 12th and 13th century is fully evident, but, as Bear herself has confirmed, this is a fictional world. Guy Gavriel Kay often refers to his fiction as a ‘quarter turn to the fantastic,’ a phrase he adopted from reviewer and author Robert Wiersema, and this can easily be applied to the Eternal Sky trilogy. Just because this is fiction does not mean that the author should ignore the history that has so generously granted its ideas and inspirations. Bear does this with grace and beautiful imagination.
The Cho-Tse of Ctesifon, a spiritual race of humanoid tigers, who feel like soft echoes of the Malaysian Harimau jadian or Indian weretiger, and a djinn named Fy-m’shar-ala-easfh-ala-wtqe-shra-tw’qe-al-nar-ala-fasheer, who will be recognizable to anyone with even a hint of knowledge about Muslim mythology/history (or, at the very least, a working knowledge of Disney’s Aladdin), co-exist in the world naturally, not by being mashed together into something recognizable but unique only through the juxtaposition of their cultural influences, but because Bear has created multiple mythologies, histories and mystical belief systems that reside alongside each other, sometimes in mutual peace, sometimes in antagonistic relief, and other times in a slow blending as border grows, tragedy forces once separate people to join together, or time passes and the natural evolution of culture goes its course. Bear tackles this phenomenon directly with the Qersnyk, an expansionist plains-people who conquer for financial and political purposes, rather than to overcome other cultures with their own; under Quersnyk rule, people are allowed to practice their cultures, religions and beliefs, as long as taxes are paid and laws are followed. This idea of political-over-cultural dominance stands in direct opposition of the beliefs of the Rasan people, whose rigid Emperor refusal to compromise for outsiders seeds a core conflict in Shattered Pillars as each group faces the brutal plague, trapping the Wizards of Tsarepheth between these two ideals. Key to uniting the two forces, and bringing balance to the unstable political and mystical upheaval, is Temur, grandson of the Great Khagan, himself drawing seeming inspiration from a Temür Khan, Emperor Chengzong of Yuan, Ikh Khagan of the Mongol Empire, Emperor of China, and grandson of Kublai Khan, who ruled his empire with a respect for diversity in culture and belief, filling high posts in his empire with people from a variety of backgrounds including Mongols, Han Chinese, Muslims and even Christians.
“Empires are filthy things, you know.”
He knew. He had grown up in the war camps and on the borders of one. And he knew, too, what happened when empires fell. “But are they so filthy as the lack of them?”
This clashing of cultures, and celebration of cultural diversity, both as an inspiration for the worldbuilding and as a catalyst for the political and spiritual conflicts that confront the characters, is a storytelling technique mastered by Abraham and Kay, and, now, Bear. Like those other authors, Bear balances the epic roots and world-changing conflicts familiar to the fantasy genre, with the subtle, close-cropped attention to character needed to convince readers to invest so utterly in the a story and its conflicts. Such balance is difficult to find. Bear makes it look easy.
I’ll admit that there are several areas of the novel that left me feeling like I was stumbling through without quite understanding the nuances, particularly the Rasan political storyline and the assembling of a Ghul army by an unlikely source. This leads to a feeling of the storyline being not quite as cognitive and natural as I’d like, which might lend itself nicely to the overall myth-like qualities of the trilogy, but Bear’s prose and imagination sort of make up for the points where I get a little lost/confused. In addition, there are several aspects of the novel, generally dealing with the more ‘otherly’ aspects of her novels, like a sky that dramatically changes colour, tone and depth based on which country rules the land underneath it, or two characters sharing the same body, that might feel clumsy in the hands on another writer, but Bear provides just enough explanation that the reader can accept them, without really needing to understand them.
Magic and mysticism is handled delicately in the trilogy, with as many different forms, understandings and uses as there are cultures and people under the Eternal Sky. Instead of setting out hard, defined rules, an even playing field that each character in the novel plays on, Bear weaves her magic through with a sense of vagueness and etherealness that is less scientific and more, well… magical. An example that stuck out at me includes Samarkar, Wizard of Tsarepheth, who can draw water from the moisture in the air, and it taxes her greatly to do so, but mechanics of the technique are left unexplained. In a post-Brandon Sanderson-world, where complex magic systems are en vogue, it pleases me to read Fantasy that expects the reader to fill in the blanks, if they want to, or just accept the magic for what it is, as many of the characters do, and let it fall into place as part of the worldbuilding. It does allow an author a bit of an escape card, being able to conjure magic from (literally) thin air when needed and not being bound by pre-established rules, but such vagueness also holds Bear only to the limits of her imagination and many of the trilogies most dramatic and emotionally resonant moments are also some of its most explosive.
Elizabeth Bear is crafting one of the finest fantasy trilogies of the past decade. Bring on Steles of the Sky.
Elizabeth Bear and her fiction remind me, in so many ways, of Abraham and Kay, but, when it comes down to it, she is as good or better than any fantasy writer you might care to put her up against. As the various elements first established in Range of Ghosts (REVIEW) begin to weave themselves into a cohesive whole, it becomes clear that Elizabeth Bear is crafting one of the finest Fantasy trilogies of the past decade. Range of Ghosts is an almost impossible act to follow, but Shattered Pillars rises admirably to the challenge, and where it suffers somewhat in its pacing, it more than makes up for with its strong thematic elements, complex relationships and tremendous worldbuilding. Bring on Steles of the Sky, for Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy is a revelation.