Arc, Ascending: Shattered Pillars by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear’s second Eternal Sky novel, Shattered Pillars, follows directly on the heels of the first, Range of Ghosts (2012). These books are set in a secondary world based loosely on the 12-13th century Asian Steppes and surrounding empires; as noted previously regarding Range of Ghosts, they are epic in scale but personal in detail, focus, and theme, following a small band of characters as they literally shift the skies of their world through war, intrigue, and determination.

At the opening of Shattered Pillars, Re Temur and the Wizard Samarkar are continuing on their journey to rescue Edene—as well as to begin Temur’s war for his kingdom—with their companions, the monk Hsuing and the tiger-woman Hrahima. However, as is revealed at the end of the first novel, Edene has taken a different path into a caustic and ancient power, determined to save herself, her unborn child, and Temur. The wizards of Tsarepheth, too, have their own struggles and devastations to overcome as the reach of the Nameless cult spreads poisonously from empire to empire.

Much of what initially drew me to Range of Ghosts remains in Shattered Pillars: the lush and well-realized world-building, rich with cultural depth and conflict; the broad and stunning cast filled with brilliant, powerful, real women; the sense of small and personal joy amidst great trauma and horror; the creative use of the trope wherein a band of heroes can change a world; etc. The Eternal Sky books are exactly the sort of epic fantasy that appeals to me. They offer a balance of grit and humanity, and never lose track of the pleasure of the epic saga: whole worlds rest in the balance of the struggles between individuals and the empires they represent. In that vein, Shattered Pillars does not disappoint—rather, it’s exactly what I was hoping it would be.

I appreciate, in particular, that Shattered Pillars acknowledges that driving sense of the vast-yet-personal early on in a conversation between Temur and Samarkar:

He touched her shoulder. “Can we fail?” he asked her.

Uncertainty flickered across her expression, but her lips grew tight. And what she said was, “Being what we are? Not if there is any substance to the stuff of legends, sir.”

But, as this middle book in the trilogy illustrates, being what they are is not always enough. As the plans of al-Sepher come to fruition, the world seems to be falling apart: Rahazeen skies are spreading over territories they have never before touched while empires topple from the inside, one after another. Meanwhile, Temur and his small band are on the run, losing allies as often as finding them, seemingly miniscule in the face of the opposition that they face. Shattered Pillars is almost entirely rising tension, an arc ascending: as I noted in Range of Ghosts, this trilogy is entirely unashamed of the fact that it is one large story split into three volumes.

The curse of the flabby middle book, however, is safely sidestepped here—thanks in part to the fact that it is intentionally structured as a middle, and thanks in part to the variety of narratives that weave together to form the tapestry of the book and the series. The ever-increasing tension that permeates this volume prevents it from losing any of the traction of the first book while ultimately tantalizing the reader with the delicately balanced chaos that seems about to break loose at its close. And, yet, because of the variety of point-of-view characters and their respective travails, the close of Shattered Pillars isn’t entirely an unfinished promise or an open scene. Everything hangs uncertain, yes, but some progress has been made and some small victories have been won—just enough to give a sense of shape to this book as an individual piece, without displacing the fast-coiling tension that will lead into the final installment.

There are, of course, questions left deviously open throughout this volume: what is the nature of the Sun Within, for Hrahima—or, truly, the powers of Erem that Edene and countless others have been exposed to or sought out? The introduction of a further frame—a set of powers alien to and outside the theologies and realms of this world—provokes further curiosity. Range of Ghosts offered many questions in terms of the spiritual powers of the various realms, from the steppes to the Uthman empire. Shattered Pillars, though, moves forward into more eldritch and terrible possibilities and inferences, as the ancient and virulent Erem comes slowly, significantly, back into power. Creating the sense of pieces falling into place though the reader can’t actually see it happening directly is challenging, but Bear handles it throughout this novel with skill. Particularly in terms of the supernatural or theological, the Eternal Sky trilogy so far does seem to move in vast and mysterious ways—without ever disposing of a sense of concrete order. The solid reality of magic, religion, and belief in these books is something that continues to engage me as a reader.

Ultimately, it is difficult to find fresh praise for a series that continues strongly in the delightful vein of its beginning—Shattered Pillars will satisfy and intrigue readers who appreciated the richness, complexity, and humanity of Range of Ghosts. As I’ve said, it does not disappoint, not by any stretch of the imagination. This second volume’s twisting plots, careful pleasures, great tragedies, and unexpected losses have much to offer; simultaneously, they leave me hungry for the finale. And, if the third and final novel in this trilogy follows the trajectory of the previous two, it will make for one of the finest epics I have yet read. For new readers interested in the series, Range of Ghosts would certainly be the place to start, rather than the middle of a powerfully connected, singular narrative—but I’d recommend that they soon make their way to this volume, to continue the unfurling journey and struggles of Temur, Samarkar, and their company of associates and enemies.

Shattered Pillars is published by Tor Books. It is available March 19.

Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.


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