THE ETERNAL SKY by Elizabeth Bear
Sometimes the whole feels less than the sum of its parts. Sometimes, you just wonder if you should have read a book (or three) at a different time. Sometimes you step back from your thoughts about a book (or three) and think, “Ingrate. What more did you need?” You feel, I don’t know, “churlish.” Like when that other person who is so smart and deep and beautiful and cute (which is different from beautiful) and witty and likes all the same music and read those same books and all in all just so great, really great, and all your friends are like, “You know, she (he’s) really into you” and you’re like, “Yeah, I don’t know.” And they’re like, “What, you think you’re gonna do better?” And you’re like, “No. But still, I just don’t know. I’m just not…” But they don’t even want to hear it. They just go, “Idiot,” and walk off. And all you can do is shrug and nod in probable agreement.
So yeah. Elizabeth Bear’s ETERNAL SKY trilogy. So smart. So deep. So beautiful. I mean, it really checks all the boxes, you know? Complex, realistic characters. Cultures that are painted not just in broadbrush strokes — “horse culture,” “Eastern culture” — but feel authentic across the spectrum of sharply realized details — not just food but the way it is consumed, not just drink but the way the tea is poured. Grand battles. Ingrained mythos. Big ideas. Strong females. Prose carved to a near-perfect edge. Moving moments. Bittersweet endings. Dragons. Humor. Wholly alien cultures left mysterious. Long walks on the beach. Dinners for two on the patio under the stars. Well, you get the idea. All the boxes.
And yet. (And here is where you just say, “Idiot,” and walk away). I liked it. I admired it. But it didn’t grab me as I knew it should. It didn’t fully move me as I knew it should. And I have to say, I was really feeling its length by the time I was halfway through the third and concluding novel, Steles of the Sky, and really wishing things would pick up a bit. I rarely, like almost never, flip to see how much of a book I have left to finish, but I did several times while reading Steles of the Sky.
But let’s start at the beginning. In Range of Ghosts, Bear introduces us to this world clearly set geographically and culturally in a slightly bent Central Asia, including (but not limited to) the kingdoms/regions of the Chinese Song, the Mongolian Steppe, Tibetan monks, the Caliphates, the Russian Empire, Kiev, The Silk Road (called here the Celadon Highway), etc. Within and without (and even under) this familiar world are a host of other peoples, such as the Cho-tse (tiger-people), the ghulim (former servants of a grand past culture that seemingly destroyed itself), giant yeti-like people of the mountains. Not to mention dragons, horse-spirits, djinn, demons, rocs (“rhuks” here), and more. A world that swims gracefully in myth and legend and spirit, and wades more muddily through politics and violence. And my absolutely favorite part of this vision? The skies above the region change based on who controls the area. Yes, the skies. Different ruler, different suns, different moons (not just kinds, but different numbers of each):
She had lived under two skies, Rasan and Song, and passed through the lands ruled by Qersnyk sikes on her road between. This one she did not know. It unsettled her… Whose sky is that, anyway? … Whose conquest is marked by this sun?”
Love that. So beautiful. So smart. “Idiot.”
There’s a dark lord once defeated and waiting to rise (though we get different versions of that defeat and Bear plays quite smartly with the trope). A cult bent on that goal, led by the sorcerer Mukhtar ai-Idoj, al-Sepehr and the twins Saadet and Shahruz. A young boy, Temur, made early on via civil war a claimant to the Great Khagan who must assert himself while avoiding multiple assassination attempts. A young girl, Edene, Temur’s first love stolen away by the cult’s leader, thus prompting the usual quest to free the damsel in distress (and if you’re paying attention, you’re not surprised it doesn’t play out in the usual fashion). A Rasan princess, Samarka-la, who gave up the chance at political power for wizardly power and who joins herself to Temur. As do Hrahima, a complex Cho-tse, and Brother Hsiung, a monk bound by a vow of silence who each morning must fight the strange green taint in his eyes. Oh, and a very unique horse. As with the various cultures, each of these feels like a real individual, with all the richness of actuality, all the positive traits and all the flaws.
Range of Ghosts introduces us to this rich, complex world and sets up alliances and opposition forces, allows al-Sepehr and the twins to put their machinations in place, and moves characters into position. Book two, Shattered Pillars introduces more vivid characters and settings and raises the urgency level, with more civil unrest, Temur’s attempt to sneak into the sorcerer’s impregnable fortress to rescue Edene, Edene’s own attempt to rescue herself, and a horrifyingly original plague that strikes Rasan’s imperial city. Though I have to say, perhaps my favorite part in this one, or at least the one I give Bear the most bonus points for, is when she has Temur stab himself with his own unsheathed dagger in the midst of chaos — that’s been a pet peeve of mine for years, if not decades, all that uncovered sharp metal waving about in people’s hands and doing no damage save what was intended. Have these author’s never been in an emergency room? On a more problematic note, this is where I was starting to feel Temur’s horse becoming too much a deus ex machina, though I’ll grant Bear has her reasons for that (it still bothered me).
Steles of the Sky brings it all to a close, adding a few more characters but really what is best about the concluding novel is how it deepens the characters we’ve spent so much time with and also the relationships between them. The other strong point is how Bear continues to conclude familiar plot/characters tropes in unexpected fashion. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, it did so in too slow or ponderous a fashion for me. Steles is about 100 pages longer than the prior two novels, and I’m not sure that was a good change, though I understand that the culminating battle (a wonderful set scene) taking up such a major portion of the end drives that somewhat. I also had a problem with how quickly a few of the characters changed their attitudes toward certain people/things, not the actual change but just the speed of it.
The deus ex machine and the somewhat unearned character changes were nagging, and that the last book had the most issues with pacing probably tainted my view of the entire trilogy, but even through books one and two I was feeling that I wasn’t just enjoying this series as much as I should be. I wish I could say why I was resistant, but the reason escapes me, since, as catalogued above, it has so much of what I look for. On our scale, I’d have to give it a solid and admiring, if uninspiring, 3.5, but I’d also suggest taking that with a grain of salt (and with a heaping helping of our other reviews of this series).