Sunday, April 27, 2014

Steles of the Sky - Elizabeth Bear

Steles of the Sky is the concluding volume in Elizabeth Bear's Eternal Sky trilogy. It's Bear's attempt to subvert just about every fantasy cliché that so plagued the genre in the years after the publication of The Lord of the Rings. She walks a fine line between writing a traditional epic fantasy and twisting it into a mode of fiction more in touch with modern ideas on gender, sexuality, politics and use of power. I absolutely loved the first two books, Range of Ghosts and Shattered Pillars, so my expectation for this novel were quite high. With a good finale the Eternal Sky trilogy could be something of a landmark in the genre and I think Bear has pulled if off. Steles of the Sky is an immersive and moving read, living up to the promise made in previous books. And to make things even better, Bear recently announced she will be writing three more books in this same universe.

Khagan Re Temur has raised his banner in opposition to the sorcerer al-Sepehr who is attempting to gain the power of a god. Through a series of clever strikes, al-Sepehr has forced together a formidable coalition. Most of them reluctant in their support for him. Temur is not entirely without allies though. With the support of the wizard Samakar, the mother of his child Edene, the monk Hsiung and the Cho-tse warrior Hrahima, he rallies his forces and Dragon Lake for a final confrontation with al-Sepehr.

The world building in these novels is very innovative. The concept of the sky changing with the ruler of the land is certainly one I haven't seen before. Most of it is laid out in the previous novels though. In this final book, Bear is mostly concerned with wrapping up all the dangling story lines. That doesn't mean there aren't some new elements in the story. She fives us a look at the northern people Kyiv, clearly inspired by the early Russian state that existed between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. Another new element is the inclusion of a dragon. How can you write fantasy and let yourself be inspired be Chinese culture without including one of those?

Temur is still the character the story revolves about. He is an almost a classic messianic figure in this novel. The one destined to lead his people against a great threat and deliver them from the evil sorcery of al-Sepehr and the mythical Carrion King. Unlike the stereotype however, he doesn't have to carry the weight of the world on is shoulders or  solve the its problems alone. A lot of the narrative deals with the people around him and it's their struggles carry to plot. The interplay between these characters is one of the elements that make these novels so successful. 

It's not by accident that a lot of the characters surrounding Temur are female. Bear continue to challenge the way women are depicted in fantasy and explores various ways in which they can be included without limiting them to the stereotypes so often encountered in other novels. She acknowledges that the cultures that inspired the novels had sexist elements deeply ingrained in them but doesn't let it stop her from fully developing these characters. Temur's reaction to the activities of the women around him is also something to be noted. Where some men would feel threatened by the strong women around him, in Temur we see respect, affection love and admiration. The way the reunion with Edene is handled is a particularly fine bit of characterization.

I did get the feeling that Bear ran into a problem that may authors of epic fantasy run into. Wrapping up all the story lines in the third book took her more pages than anticipated. This book is about a hundred pages longer than the previous two. Not that that makes it particularly long by the standards of the genre - Bear clearly is no Sanderson -  but the difference is still noticeable. Bear's writing remains effective however. Despite the large cast, the changes of point of view are smooth and the voices of the characters clearly recognizable. She is not tempted to add unnecessary bits of worldbuilding to the story. Where some would have been tempted to draw out the final confrontation a bit longer, Bear wraps up the trilogy is a bitter sweet final fifty pages.

It's in the climax of the trilogy that Bear's genius truly comes to the fore. It is very hard to discuss this without major spoilers for the entire series but I can say that is one of the most heartrending pieces of fantasy I've ever come across. Triumph and sacrifice and the physical reality of warfare make it an emotional roller coaster that will affect the reader long after the last page has been turned. Bear's writing is sometimes a bit understated, more subtle than some the big names in the genre, but she uses it to great effect in this novel. It is one of those pieces of writing you'd wish you could read again for the first time. Stunning, I have no other word for it.

I don't think I can praise Steles of the Sky, or the rest of the trilogy for that matter, highly enough. Bear set out to create a work of epic fantasy that would challenge the genre's clichés and treatment of gender related issues and ended up setting a new standard. Bear retains a lot of elements that make the genre attractive to readers while showing us a whole new way of dealing with them. It's one of the most successful attempts to break with the restrictions Tolkien's success imposed on the genre. I once said that if I'd found the perfect book I'd stop reading. Bear comes dangerously close to making me break that promise.

Book Details
Title: Steles of the Sky
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 429
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2756-7
First published: 2014

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