In the concluding volume of Elizabeth Bear’s gripping and immersive Eternal Sky trilogy, following Range of Ghosts (reviewed here) and Shattered Pillars (reviewed here), the webs of alliances, betrayals, and enmities that have grown up alongside the complex and rather large cast of these novels must finally come to a head. Re Temur and his band of allies seek to defend his claim as Khagan against the armies of his usurping cousin and to end the havoc wrought by al-Sepehr across the myriad kingdoms of the continent—no short order for a somewhat ragtag group of wizards, deposed rulers, and refugees.
Steles of the Sky has a great deal of momentum and expectation to live up to, and ultimately, it more than fulfills those expectations: it’s a powerful, fast-paced, provocative conclusion that maintains the series’ delightful and unique balance between the epic and the intimate. Building on the strengths of the prior volumes—their diversity of cast, the rich tapestry of different characters and cultures that create this world; the grit and realism of suffering paired with the small and necessary pleasures of strong bonds (romantic and platonic) and shared experience; et cetera—this final installment concludes what is perhaps, to my eye, the most significant epic fantasy published in the last decade.
To begin, it likely goes without saying that Steles of the Sky is very much the concluding volume in a strongly connected trilogy; as such, it picks up directly where the previous novel left off in its various conflicting and confluent storylines. The protagonists of these novels are multiple in number—the majority being women, one of the things about this trilogy that has continued to please—and all have their own parts to play in the conclusion. Samarkar and Edene, of course, but also Tsering and Yangchen, Saadet and Ümmühan; these are just to name a few of the individuals whose hands are on the pulse of the developing narrative, here. I was also glad to see more from Brother Hsuing’s point of view, this time around.
These separate strands all warp and weave together remarkably well. The shifts from one point of view to the next are smooth, continually drawing the narrative along at a solid pace that effortlessly manages the escalating tension without ever tumbling into a rushed confusion. There are several reunions as well as the final banding together for the battle at the end, and so these disparate characters’ lives also begin to clash and unite in previously unanticipated ways. And these joinings, too, are well managed; I never felt that a reunion was too simple, or that the affective impact was less than it should be.
In particular, the reunion between Edene and Temur—with Samarkar also present—is both jubilant and tamed by serious concerns, balancing the finally finished searching of two previous novels against the changes both of these characters have undergone in the time between. The collection of allies, as well, always a part of a story like this, comes together organically in a manner that feels natural and unforced. As for the particular strands of the story, there are too many too give due diligence to each—suffice to say that not a one disappointed me, and I especially found intriguing the chapters from Saadet’s point of view as her conception of herself and her role changed during her time with the Qersnyk people.
In the reviews of each prior volume, I’ve commented on things like the brilliant sexual and gender politics of these novels—their complexity, their cultural variance, that sort of thing—as well as the deft handling of scope each has. Those things are all still and doubly true in Steles of the Sky: the mythic—the truly epic—comes to fruition in this conclusion in a stunning series of intersections between the divine and the mortal, but so too do the very mortal and very fragile relationships between people that drive the whole thing in the first place. The family unit that Edene, Temur, their son, and Samarkar form was particularly well-developed; so, too, are the personal and political conflicts a woman like Ümmühan has with her station, her loyalty to other women, and her loyalty to her kingdom.
But the last major thing I wanted to talk about—again, though each storyline is great and none of them lost my attention individually—is the centrality of the mythic, the real import of religion and faith in this novels. That’s 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.
The embrace Temur makes of Bansh’s divine origins, and his ride into the sky to collect the Sacred Herd for his people—as well as the bargain he makes with Mother Night—are obviously central to the climax. This is myth made flesh (or horseflesh), and these belief systems are quite real. Hsuing encounters a Sage on his road to visit his monastery; Tsering rides a dragon to the rescue; Hrahima—though herself a sort of atheist, which is fascinating in the context of religions that have objective reality behind them—uses her connection to the Sun Within to help guide Temur’s spirit in the final moments of battle.
Which brings me to the ending, and the death of our protagonist. I don’t hesitate to say that Bear’s execution of this is brilliant. Though we understand that a bargain has been made for the use of the Sacred Herd, for Temur’s victory, there is then a moment where he believes he misunderstood it—that he will not die. And then the inevitable happens. However, as death is not closing, his ghost is part of the defeat of al-Sepehr—then finally, in the closing scene of this powerful trilogy, legend becomes legend: Bansh, carrying Temur’s corpse, rides to the sky, where a new constellation forms.
There’s something about this literally epic tale that I find to be a truly remarkable development in the generic form. The Eternal Sky novels are not afraid of their stature, their grandness, but neither do they sacrifice the personal and emotional resonance of the story. It is as if the reader has been able to experience, through very human and conflicted sets of eyes, the making of a myth. Bear’s execution of the epic style and form retains its humanity, and that makes it unique (as well as uniquely memorable). Rather than dealing only with the kingdoms of men, these novels accept and render as necessary to the reader the existence of gods and ancestors, effective prayers and things like scholar-priestess factions that can shift the tides of war. And rather than a novel just about gods and monsters, these books deal quite honestly and intimately with the people who might become those legends.
Overall Steles of the Sky is a strong ending, emotionally resonant and satisfying, to a wonderful set of novels. I’d recommend them for the above reasons and the reasons mentioned in the past reviews, and then a hundred other little things that I haven’t had the space to comment on. Bear is at top-notch form, here, and these books are more than worth reading. The novels of the Eternal Sky are dense, gripping, and also entertaining, full of emotion, adventure, loss, and the possibility of hope. (And also a richly, complexly gendered cast—can’t forget that.) I’m glad to have had the chance to read them.
Brit 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.