First, a confession: I’ve mostly given up on epic fantasy as a genre. I keep circling back to it because I remember the sense of soaring escape it gave me in eighth grade, but the story about intrepid heroes banding together to save the world from evil has long since lost its shine for me. The series I’ve slogged through recently — including the Hugo-nominated one, which rhymes with Peel of Lime — would only be useful to me if I needed to prop open a door on a breezy day, or start a fire in some kind of post-apocalyptic situation.
But then sometimes I stumble over an epic fantasy series that reminds me why I keep returning to it: because there’s something buried deep in the marrow of fantasy, well-hidden by pounds of Tolkien knock-offs and Dungeons & Dragons narratives, that resonates with the oldest and grandest of our stories. Because humans are story-telling animals, maker-uppers of wild and strange tales, and the stories we love best are quests. And quests involve gods, kings, and sometimes intrepid heroes banding together to save the world. That’s what Elizabeth Bear’s ETERNAL SKY has been for me — the best and rarest kind of epic fantasy.
In the end it was as it had been in the beginning; Temur alone with his liver-bay mare…and then she galloped into the sky on a rising battlement of noise.
Steles of the Sky, the final book in the trilogy, did exactly what it had to do: It connected the beginning with the end, and the good and bad came together in a crashing, culminating battle, with the odds stacked strongly in favor of the bad. If you’ve read the first two books, you know Temur and his allies raise their banner in opposition to al-Sepehr and everything chaotic and cruel and creepy. If you haven’t read the first two books, what are you doing. Stop. Turn back now.
Everything I loved about the first two books is still here: The cast of compelling and emotionally-real characters, the subtle and satisfying nature of the gender politics, the textured world of Silk Road empires. The only question was whether Bear would be able to carry the weight of expectation and plot development and bring everybody to their necessary ends. Spoiler: She succeeded.
The result is a book full of climactic moments of cinematic flair — which is a snotty way of saying there are scenes in Steles of the Sky that I would pay a great deal of money to see on screen. There’s the pregnant warrior-Queen riding her horse into the sky, hooves licking sparks from the sky, to seek vengeance. There’s an aspiring god riding a giant bird into battle. There’s Temur, leading a herd of mares in a hundred impossible colors. It’s the kind of masterful arranging of characters and colors and purposes that makes you want to pause the book and take a picture.
But of course lots of fantasy books have epic battles with mythical creatures. Lots of them even use historical peoples and events as their inspiration. But very few fantasy books manage to combine history, myth, magic, and culture, and weave a real world out of them. Perhaps due to her anthropological training, Bear has managed to grasp something true about the nature of cultural change. Most fantasy writers are terribly, embarrassingly lazy about culture — the protagonist has something very similar to twenty-first century American values, and he visits places that are almost-offensive collages of other cultures. There are sometimes noble savages, or holy Eastern-ish monks, or oppressed religious fanatics, but nothing that has the weight and messiness of an actual human society. Real culture is something simultaneously hallucinatory and tangible, made out of everything from your favorite food as a child to the stories your uncles told you to the shape of the gods you worshipped. And real culture changes, because it has both a history and a future. The Qersnyk empire, the Uthman Caliphate, the Rasan kingdom — all of Bear’s creations are complicated, fallible, and real.
But I don’t want to make Steles of the Sky sound stodgy or academic. It truly is a work of epic fantasy, which means it has all the satisfying heart-thumping adventure you could ever want, and slightly too many characters to keep track of. There are demons made of glass, and blood ghosts, and dragons lurking in underground lakes. There are banners raised on bloody battlefields. And there is a final scene that will leave you laid out flat on the front porch, crying, explaining to your boyfriend that you’re fine but there are just some things you have to deal with. It’s the reason I’ll keep reading epic fantasy.
For those who have already read it, who are just clicking around the internet looking for someone who understands — highlight the following text for spoiler-y commiseration:
I cried. A good long cry. And then when I was done crying over Temur, I read the last few pages, and cried again when Bansh carries him into the sky to be remade into star and myth. I won’t say I loved the ending, because I’m the kind of person who can still tear up thinking about Mufasa, and who has never complained about a happily ever after ending. But I will say I was terribly impressed. It’s a very rare writer that can kill her hero without betraying the heart of the books she’s written. Temur’s death doesn’t cheapen his quest or cheat the reader, because these were books were not about the one rightful king taking the throne, so much as the terrifying chaos of cultural change. Empires rising and falling, religions weaving in and out of popular consciousness, borders constantly redrawn. Temur was a kind of historical fulcrum, ultimately crushed beneath the weight of the load. And Edene and Samarkar — well, they’ll take care of things.[END OF spoiler-y commiseration].