Saturday, 13 August 2016

Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear

 With this, I think I finish the truly astonishing haul of Elizabeth Bear books I picked up at the local library sale last year. (I'm almost done everything I bought, and might actually finish the last couple non-Bear books before this year's sale in October.) That has meant that I've read the three parts of this trilogy closer together than I might otherwise have, and I'm glad, because they're so intricate and densely connected I might have had to struggle to remember what was going on, instead of drifting seamlessly from one into the next.

I was struck again that although these books are about struggles and wars to recapture kingdoms and empires for men, they are told through the women involved. For every Temur, there are three or four female characters who are as, if not more, important. And in particular, the first half of the book was largely about being refugees of various sorts, and again, we saw most of this through the eyes of the women involved, whether the dowager empress Yangchen ruling for her son and trying to hide her own complicity in the fall of her city, or of Tsering, magic-less magician, both trying to keep their groups as alive as they can in a world where the sky has changed and the earth is relentless.

And of course, we have Temur and the two women he loves, neither of whom he can marry. Samarkar, wizard and his lover, meets Edene, mother of his child and also his lover, and all three create a household, and this is neither easy nor particularly angsty. They live in a world where multiple marriages are common, in various ways, and negotiate this as best they can. The ring Edene wears that lets her command ghouls, and may be trying to control her, is of far more concern.

After the various groups have found each other, the question then becomes how to prepare to win a war against impossible odds. And as we go into the battle, Temur is not even present at its outset, and the rest of the characters must fight to hold their ground and take the battle to the sorcerer who is trying to resurrect a demon through the sacrifice of tens of thousands.

As before, these are all intricately knit stories, with many many characters that I finally can keep all straight. (It was a little hard in the first book, and even, to some extent, in the second.) The ways in which power is kept and defended, and what makes a leader worthy of being followed (and the ways in which toxic leadership sows its own demise) are delicately laid out, and come to fruition in very satisfying ways.

Bear is really excellent at capturing a number of different cultures that she's created, and then individuals who react within those cultures in varying ways. You need both of those things to write a trilogy like this and have it work - too many people would just say "this is the way it is in that culture." It takes it to the next level to consider how individual personalities and experiences adapt reactions.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that if you're looking for satisfyingly complex fantasy novels that have really great and interesting characters, these are books you should be checking out. These are the types of books that make me enjoy fantasy, as opposed to the "seven guys on a quest" model that I've seen way too many times.


  1. There are so many things I loved about these books. I still remember this one part(and I think it happens in this last book?) when Samarkar looks at Edene and feels this kind of fleeting sort of jealousy for her youth and beauty before she just catches herself and says, oh no, you don't need to go there, it's not that way with the three of us. So wonderful that the feeling was there though, and acknowledged, then allowed to pass and not given any power over her or the family she was building with Edene and Temur. To just pretend there were no individual feelings in the polyamory would have felt...unrealistic? Because these are still individuals even if they are able to build family units that with cohesive structures that are different than what we have become socially accustomed to. Anyway, that was just one of the ever so many things I just loved to death about these books.

    Oh, and amazing cover art...especially when you put all three books up together:)

    1. Yeah, absolutely. It's not that it's easy, but neither is it the hardest thing they have to deal with.

      And yes, the covers are gorgeous!