Fri
Apr 18 2014 12:00pm

Wings Gleaming Like Beaten Bronze: Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky Trilogy

Eternal Sky Elizabeth Bear

“Better a storm crow than a carrion bird.”

–Range of Ghosts, Elizabeth Bear

This is not a review. The Powers That Be here at Tor.com have asked me to write about Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy as a whole now that it’s available in its entirety for your reading pleasure. Because I love it, you see. I love it so much, now that it is done, that the small criticisms I may have had for the middle book fade into insignificance: it has the kind of conclusion that raises up everything that has gone before, that adds fresh meanings to previous events in the light of new knowledge, new developments, new triumphs and griefs.

I will tell you what I did, when I reached the final page of Steles of the Sky and closed its covers and recovered my emotional balance long enough to stop weeping.

I went looking for music. Not just any music, but music that recalled the sweep and scale of the steppes and the world of the Eternal Sky. It seems inevitable that I should’ve ended up listening to traditional Mongolian music, given the debt that the Qersnyk in Bear’s trilogy owe to Mongolian culture—but this marks the first time I can remember that a novel set in a fantasy world has prompted me to seek out music and art from the cultures that influenced its creation. Because the world that Bear’s created here, in its depth and detail and richness and possibilities, makes me want to know more both about it, and about its influences: it invites its readers to think on broader, stranger, vaster canvases than those to which they’re accustomed.

Talking about something one loves deeply, as a critic or a reviewer, involves making oneself vulnerable. It is always easier to discuss something’s flaws, its technical successes and failures, than it is to talk about the intensely personal impact of the emotional reaction it evokes. When it comes to Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy, that emotional reaction strikes me extremely hard. Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars, and Steles of the Sky comprise, as a unity, the most powerful story I’ve read in years: a story that subverts the expectations of epic fantasy even as it uses them to create a narrative with mythic resonance and force. I read Range of Ghosts two years ago, and it felt to me like the epic fantasy I’d spent my whole life waiting to read: waiting without ever knowing what precisely I was missing.

Epic fantasy has long been dominated by Tolkien and his inheritors. In recent years epic has come to be represented in the wider sphere by Crapsack World deconstructions of heroes and heroic arcs, in a retreat towards a grim and grey sort of “realism” that deprives fantasy of much of the element of wonder that makes it fantastical. But the Eternal Sky trilogy sidesteps both of these tendencies to go its own way: a way filled with wonder, amazing world-building, heroism and tragedy—and also filled with grit, emotional realism, and a light, ironic, humane sense of humour.

And mythic grandeur: Brit Mandelo said it best in her review of Steles of the Sky:

“[T]he centrality of the mythic, the real import of religion and faith in this novels [is] what makes them stand out as far and above the most fascinating and true-to-label ”epic“ fantasies I’ve read in recent years. These novels recall legends; rather than backgrounding religion as merely part of the landscape, Bear’s Eternal Sky books present genuine and world-structuring (literally) conflicts between religions—none of which are more or less concrete than the others. This interrelation of faiths, of figures and gods and divinities, is the source of much of the power of the climax and denouement of Steles of the Sky.”

Bear sets her trilogy in a world inspired by Central Asia and the Silk Road, by the Chinese kingdoms and Tibet and the Mongolian steppe and the caliphates of Turkey and Iran. The scope of the story stretches the length of a continent, and the peoples of the Celadon Highway and the wider world are varied, diverse, vibrant, and rarely predictable: from the Lizard Folk with their woman-king to an all-female order of scholar-priests in the Uthman Caliphate; from the deadly suns of Erem to the city of Tsarepheth in the lee of a dormant volcano. There are megafauna and ghulim, intelligent bear-people and intriguing tiger-people (the Cho-tse) with complicated relationships to their god. There are dragons and treaties and sacred horses, curses and wizardry and demons, loyalty and treachery, plague and war, love and death.

The trilogy opens with vultures, and it ends with them, too.

The prose is honed, lustrous, precise and pointed as a knife-blade. If it weren’t so sharply visceral, I’d call it “polished” or “elegant,” but it has violence as well as grace. Chiselled, perhaps, is one word for it: it draws me back and sweeps me along with it every time I open a page. It doesn’t efface itself, and I love it for its descriptive brilliance.

But most of all I love this trilogy for its characters. Its many, many characters, all of whom, even the antagonists, feel like real people with real motivations and desires and complexities. Temur, heir to the Great Khagan, hunted by assassins, determined to find Edene, the woman he promised to marry; Samarkar-la, who gave up her position as the elder sister of the Rasan emperor for the chance to have power in her own right as a wizard; Edene, who escapes from captivity to raise an army from the ruins of deadly Erem; Hong-la and Tsering-la, wizards of Tsarepheth who struggle to treat demonic plague and protect refugees; Brother Hsiung and the Cho-tse Hrahima, Temur and Samarkar’s travelling companions. More, many more, all with their own histories and heroisms and regrets.

Saadet, who shares her body with the spirit of her twin brother after he dies, who has vowed vengeance on Temur; Ümmühan, the slave poetess and scholar whose songs and betrayals topple caliphs and affect the fate of armies.

I loved, towards the end of Steles of the Sky, that—reunited—Edene and Temur and Samarkar make a family unit, a political unit, that’s stronger together than it is apart; that Samarkar and Edene’s friendship is fledgling but real. I loved the presence of gods and goddesses, of dragons bound by treaty and battles in the sky, of Samarkar saying “I had an itch in my religion,” and Temur making his great, his terrible, his inevitable bargain with Mother Night.

I don’t have words to express how much, and how deeply, this trilogy affected me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go start reading Range of Ghosts again.

 

Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars, and Steles of the Sky are available now.
Read excerpts from all three novels (and other works by Elizabeth Bear) here on Tor.com


Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. Her blog. Her Twitter.

12 comments
Paul Weimer
1. PrinceJvstin
Thanks, Liz.

I try not to let the emotions of a novel or a story affect me too deeply. For instance, I read some of Valdemar in a dark place and part of Vanyel's story put me into an abyss, his story and mine heterodyning together. That can be dangerous for a depressive.

Bear's writing gets through that armor as few authors can manage. I shed tears over the ending of the series, and was moved at many points.

I can't say good enough things about the Eternal Sky novels.
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
3. hoopmanjh
The first two were some of the best things I've read in a long, long, long time and I'm really looking forward to the third when it hits the top of my queue.

What music did you end up with?
beruthiel
4. beruthiel
Ugh I got choked up all over again just reading this. This series is a masterwork, I swear.
Liz Bourke
5. hawkwing-lb
hoopmanjh @3:

An album by Uragsha, one by Egschiglen, and one by THE MONGOL BAND. And a couple of tracks from the classical Arabic tradition by Jordi Savall and Afif Alvarez Bulos, because they came up in the "also bought" recommendations... and I couldn't resist.
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
6. hoopmanjh


I was going to also suggest Huun Huur Tu, but they're not too dissimilar from some of the ones you've listed. If you want something a little closer to the western edge of the Silk Road, there's Ghazal -- Indian sitar and Persian fiddle (whose name escapes me).

Or if you want something really different, there's Yat-Kha, founded by one of the former member of Huun Huur Tu -- his version of "Love Will Tear Us Apart Again" has to be heard to be believed ...
Bruce Arthurs
7. Bruce-Arthurs
Adding to my want-to-read list.

(Boy, that list is getting long. Back in the days of my youth, when we lived across the street from the Flintstone and Rubble families, it was still possible to read all the SF/F published, good and bad. Nowadays, I tend to despair of being able to read even all the best.)
beruthiel
8. Jaime Moyer
There are books that light up my brain in absolute wonder and awe, make me ache and grieve for the characters, and fear for what will happen to them.

From the first page Range of Ghosts did that to me, and Shattered Pillars intensived the feelings I had about this story. I'm always a bit reluctant to finish a series I love, because then it's over, and at the same time I can't wait to read Steles of the Sky and find out what happens.

I predict epic weeping on my part. Like you, I feel I've been waiting my entire life to read these books.
beruthiel
9. Rachel Neumeier
Wonderful. Thank you for writing a reaction rather than a review.
Constance Sublette
10. Zorra
Contentless; though it does provide the dock from which others who share the squee can jump into the squee pool! :)
Liz Bourke
11. hawkwing-lb
hoopmanjh @6:

I listened to some samples of Huun Huur Tu, but they didn't hit the spot in quite the same way. *g*

Bruce-Arthur @7:

It is a pretty big field these days...

Jaime Moyer @8:

All the FEELS, as they say on Tumblr. ALL OF THEM.
Liz Bourke
12. hawkwing-lb
Rachel Neumeier @9:

It's a lot of fun to be able write this sort of thing on occasion!

Zorra @10:

Out of interest, what would count as content?
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
13. hoopmanjh
And now I'm about 180 pages into the book and loving almost every single word, space and punctuation mark.

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