Sunday, April 28, 2013

Shattered Pillars - Elizabeth Bear

Range of Ghosts was one of the best books I've read last year. Bear's attempt to show what epic fantasy can be if you strip away the sexism, overused tropes, excessive word count and pseudo medieval European setting. It was a bit of a departure from Bear's previous work but certainly a successful one. One element typical of epic fantasy Bear didn't discard is the trilogy format, although the books appear to be one long novel split in three rather than three distinct novels. I was late picking up Range of Ghosts, reading it months after it was published so fortunately I didn't have to wait that long for the second volume Shattered Pillars to appear. My expectations were high and I must say Bear has met them. If Bear can keep this going for the third volume, Steles of the Sky, expected in early 2014, The Eternal Sky trilogy will be a landmark in modern fantasy as far as I'm concerned.

Re-Temur and Samarkar the wizard have reached the house of Temur's grandfather in the city of Asitaneh. Temur's grandfather is a man of influence there but that doesn't mean they are safe. Violence and disease plague the world all along the Celadon Highway and Temur's enemies will not give up that easily. While the pair and their companions try to find a way to free Edene from the hands of the Rahazeen and forward his claim to the Khaganate that is still in dispute. The world doesn't wait for the two of them to sort out their problems though, assassins find them soon enough and on top of that political manipulations pose a challenge as well. Their position is desperate but they are not read to give up.

As with the previous volume, the novel is fairly concise. Where epic fantasy tends to run in may hundreds of pages, with large casts of characters and often many points of view, Bear manages to do an epic in just over 300 pages. Quite a feat if you consider that the novel follows three other major story lines besides that of Temur and Samakar. I haven't quite pinpointed how Bear manages. It is certainly not short on action scenes for instance. If I had to have a stab at it, I'd say it is probably a bit heavier on dialogue and light on descriptive passages. Bear manages to flesh out her world in remarkably efficient prose. Her language is gorgeous in this novel. If I had to make a comparison, the nature of the story and the prose reminded me of Guy Gavriel Kay. Bear doesn't borrow as heavily from history as Kay does but there are clear parallels with existing cultures throughout the book.

The women in this novel again take center stage. Samarkar is particularly impressive. She has always claimed to be a wizard of modest ability but the various life threatening situations she finds herself in make her pull off some impressive feats of wizardry. It is interesting to see that bear presents her magic as a combination of an elemental system and science. In one scene Samarkar is forced to manipulate fire for instance and in a leap of understanding she skips the phlogiston theory and reaches an intuitive understanding of the interplay between fuel and air. The science that can be found reading between the lines expands to such complex issues as radioactivity and human anatomy in other parts of the book. It is an interesting contrast with the sometimes very strange religious views of some of the characters and the Eternal Sky itself, which doesn't behave in any way science could explain.

Gender roles are further explored in this novel as well. Again Samarkar important here. The city of Asitaneh is part of the Uthman Caliphate where the Scholar-God is worshipped. There are some parallels with Islam in this particular faith regarding what is considered proper for women. In one scene, Samarkar is forced to wear armour, complete with helmet in the appalling heat of the city to avoid having to around veiled. Her modesty becomes her armour so to speak, I thought it was an interesting compromise. Appearing warrior like when modesty was the aim. It does allow Bear to show off Samarkar's impressive physical skills as well though.

One of the other plot lines that interested me in particular was the one set in the Song empire. It deals with the outbreak of an epidemic and focuses on the wizards of  Tsarepheth scrambling to find a cure for the disease as well as finding out the origin of the magical attack. Their research is an odd mix of a surprisingly deep understanding of the working of the human body and the magic that suffuses the whole city. I was very impressed with the way Bear describes the procedures. Although there is a distinct supernatural element to the disease the whole handling of the epidemic somehow struck me ar very realistic. One of the more powerful moments in the novel is when the Empress fully grasps her own part in these tragic events. It is topped by a (very understated) death of one of the secondary characters though. The response to this death of one of the wizards affected me greatly.

Shattered Pillars is every bit as good and Range of Ghosts. Never in this novel does Bear let the pace of the tale of the quality of the writing slip. Many an epic fantasist could do worse than take a few pointers from what Bear is trying to do here. Unfortunately I am going to have to wait the full year this time to read the conclusion but given the quality of the first two book I have no doubt it will be worth the wait. I may have to check out the accompanying novellas Bone and Jewel Creatures and Book of Iron, sometime soon. I can't emphasize this enough. Bear is on her way to creating a great work here. Fantasy readers take note!

Book Details
Title: Shattered Pillars
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 333
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2755-0
First published: 2013

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