The third and final book in Elizabeth Bear’s Edda of Burdens, The Sea Thy Mistress (excerpt here), ties off a story that spans thousands of years—from the futuristic, decaying world of the first book, All the Windwracked Stars, to the distant-past battles of By the Mountain Bound. It’s an ambitious story arc that plays with ideas about narrative and “story cycle” while remixing Norse mythos and science fiction, as well as such themes as what it is to be human, to love, to forgive, and to grow.
Each book does something thematically distinct, while still managing to fit into the story-cycle as a whole, and each tells its tale with a different narrative construction. It’s nearly a trilogy made of stand-alones, and yet, it isn’t—the books are all intimately, deeply tied in story and character. The cool part, the part that thrills me as a reader, is that they can also be read in any order, and the order they’re read in produces a different angle on the story.
The publication order bounces from the far-flung future to a past so distant it’s another world, then back to where the first book ended. However, it can also be read in story-order, starting with By the Mountain Bound instead—which gives a different perspective to All the Windwracked Stars, especially when it comes to Mingan, the Grey Wolf. For the person reading Stars first, he’s an antagonist, but with foreknowledge of the games he’s playing and his motivations, he’s much more an anti-hero, a role that finishes its development in his redemption in The Sea Thy Mistress. It doesn’t make him a good person, but suddenly, what seemed like baseless cruelty makes much more sense.
Playing with narrative is fun.
The structure in each book differs, also, to reflect what the text is trying to accomplish. All the Windwracked Stars is laid out in chapters with titles that are runes, alternating narrator between a few characters but progressing in a mostly linear fashion with flashbacks where necessary. It culminates in a renewal of the world, a triumph of sacrifice and devotion over stagnation and selfishness. By the Mountain Bound is told in alternating chunks each chapter, between Mingan, Muire, and Strifbjorn. That story is one of heartbreak, and wrong decisions, and worse fates—it is a book about the death of a world and the death of love. Not coincidentally, it’s also the most wrenching of the three—perhaps made easier by the knowledge that some will survive, in many forms, in All the Windwracked Stars.
The Sea Thy Mistress rounds out the trilogy. It is told in chronological jumps over several years, through the growth of Muire and Cathoair’s child and the slow development of Heythe’s plan for revenge. It’s a wider narrative, spread over great distances and a long time, whereas the previous two books took place in relatively small geographical areas where everyone was crammed together. This book is concerned with redemption and renewal for the people who have sacrificed, lost and even wasted so much in the previous two books. It’s one of the most uplifting, pleasant endings I’ve ever encountered in Bear’s work; I was holding my breath until the last moment waiting on someone else to die. Instead, things actually work out. Cathoair and Mingan finally talk the way they need to, Muire-as-the-bearer-of-burdens gets rid of Mingan’s collar and he and Cathoair lay old ills to rest. The trilogy closes on Cahey promising him that he will be welcome in any hall, and that the times have changed. Mingan has redeemed himself and, not inconsequentially, saved the world that he once nearly damned.
The exploration of parenting and what it means to be a family in The Sea Thy Misress are also particularly touching. It is a very different kind of book than the rest; more positive and concerned with healing interpersonal relationships than breaking them in the messiest way possible.
The series’ concern with and reinterpretation of Norse mythology is the thing that most critics talk about, and it’s also an engaging part of the universe. It is built on the bedrock of myth: Mingan is the Sun-Eater, and he can cross into the dead and bleak places in old Midgard. He isn’t the only one to survive multiple worlds—the goddess/sorceress Heythe has done so, too—but his world is familiar to a student of mythology. The end of the first book revolves around Muire’s discovery of the eighteenth rune, one of renewal and recovery, which she uses to heal the world itself. I’m a particular nerd for the Nordic mythos, which was what drew me to these books initially, and I can say they’re one of the most unique derivations I’ve ever read. They take the myths as an inspiration but not a guideline, which allows Bear to build a strange new universe.
The Edda of Burdens is an adventurous, ambitious project, and it’s definitely worth picking up. While it has some flat points—The Sea Thy Mistress could use more fleshing out in its descriptions, it’s almost too sparse—it’s twisty and often heart-breaking, with a surprisingly happy ending that will leave the reader pleased and perhaps fuzzy-feeling.