The Sea Thy Mistress is the third part in one of the most unusual trilogies I've read in recent years. It opened with the steampunkish, post apocalyptic and Norse mythology infused novel All the Windwracked Stars (2008). It then took a step back into history to find the root of the conflict the characters find themselves in. By the Mountain Bound (2009) is a novel that leans much more on mythology and I guess you could call it a bit more traditional fantasy. In The Sea Thy Mistress we pick up the tale of the characters we left at the end of All the Windwracked Stars again. Once again, it is quite different from the other novels. Bear shows the breadth of her skill as a writer in this trilogy, but also takes a risk. It's very unlikely each of these novels will appeal to all readers of this trilogy. Personally, I found By the Mountain Bound the least appealing of the three.
At the end of All the Windwracked Stars, our main character Muire sacrificed herself to prevent another Ragnarök. She went into the sea to become a goddess, the Bearer of Burdens, thereby giving the world another chance at life. She leaves the Grey Wolf Mingan and Cathoair, with his newly acquired immortality, behind in a world that is about to flower again. Thirty-four years after Muire's sacrifice, Aethelred goes to the sea to talk to Muire. The goddess does not make an appearance herself, but when he is about to leave, a child washes ashore, carefully wrapped in seaweed. It turns out to be the son of Cathoair and Muire. Immortal as all angels are and the first new angel to appear in the world since the last crisis.
The boy Cathmar grows up in a world slowly expanding and growing again. That is not to say everybody is happy with this new spring. Mingan is the first to notice a new threat to their new-found peace when the goddess Heythe, a character who played her part in the previous Ragnarök, appears on the scene. Her powers are vast and any direct confrontation between the angels and the goddess is bound to result in the destruction of the angels. Mingan will have to play a deeper game if he wants to survive this. One that will rip open many old wounds.
There is a great contrast in this book between the characters, who bear the burden of guilt, a sense of loss and a longing for redemption, and the setting, which is mostly that of a world on the way to full recovery. It reads almost like a book set in one long spring, even if the story covers some five decades. Time is nothing for the angels after all. This sombre mood that most of the major characters share, in this setting that is mostly young and optimistic, gives the novel a very different atmosphere from All the Windwracked Stars. In that novel Muire's desperation is matched by the sad state the world (shrunken to one city) is in.
The sole exception to this is of course the character of Cathmar. He's the only one of the major players in the novel who does not at least have one lifetime of bitter memories to carry. It is not all that surprising that a rift between him and the other major characters forms later in the novel. Something that is greatly helped along by Heythe's actions. In a way, Cathmar is this bright new world; young, inquisitive, impatient, sexy. I guess I should add gullible or perhaps naive to the list as well. He falls into Heythe's trap easily. To Bear's credit, she keeps the teenage drama to a minimum. In fact, Cathmar is very mature about it when the penny finally drops.
The prose Bear uses in the novel is quite concise. Although she manages to convey the atmosphere of this new, emerging world very well, the author doesn't need that many words to do so. At just over 300 pages it is not a long novel. Most of it is focussed on the emotional lives of the main characters. With in some cases thousands of years of history to draw from, that is more than enough to fill the pages. Although It hough Cathoair more interesting in All the Windwracked Stars, but this time Mingan is my favourite. Events in the previous book have shaped his character to something that is less outright villain but there is still a definite dark edge to him. He plays a deep game in this story, the only one with a chance of success.
I think I prefer All the Windwracked Stars slightly over The Sea Thy Mistress but whatever the reader's preference, there is something to be found in this trilogy to love. Bear uses a lot of tropes, ideas and styles that don't usually show up in a single trilogy, making it something of an experiment. In fact, I am a little surprised Tor, not a publisher to take too many risks, has been persuaded to publish it. Although Bear is a very skilled writer, I don't think much of her work appeals to large groups of readers. In this case, that is clearly a shame. Bear presents some of the most original, well written and challenging speculative fiction of recent years in this trilogy. I'd say take a chance on it, Bear's work is more than worth it.
Title: The Sea Thy Mistress
Author: Elizabeth Bear
First published: 2011