BOOK REVIEW: The Shattered Pillars by Elizabeth Bear
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Prince Temur and allies seek to rescue the woman he would make Queen, who may not even need rescuing, even as the plans of a death cult threaten the fate of all of the Kingdoms on the Celadon Highway,
PROS: Amazing worldbuilding; character growth and development from the main characters; excellent through line.
CONS: Some secondary characters get a bit of short shrift; book does not conclude so much as end.
BOTTOM LINE: Bear’s foray into Epic Fantasy continues to be a highlight of the subgenre.
In Range of Ghosts, we were introduced to a fantastic world based on the Silk Road; a world where magicians give up much to gain their power, where the day and night sky vary depending on what Gods and culture are dominant, a world where a sorcerer seeks to bring back a dread power into the world, to the ruin of all. In addition, we were introduced to a suite of memorable characters, like Temur, the only survivor of a battle that has left an usurper on a throne that might rightfully now be his; Samarkar, a former princess-turned-sorceress, a walking scandal on two grounds; Edene, the woman that Temur wins, only to lose to the forces of the Rahazeen death cult; and many more.
Shattered Pillars picks up that narrative. Edene has escaped her captivity, and might wind up with a dangerous power at her own beck and call in the bargain. Meanwhile, Temur and Samarkar seek allies for Temur not only to find Edene, but take his rightful place on the steppe. And the Rahazeen themselves are far from being idle as the protagonists marshal their resources.
It might be a cliche to say, but clearly things have just got real.
The worldbuilding in Shattered Pillars, the second novel in the Eternal Sky epic fantasy series, continues in fine form. The series, it is now clear, is having its volumes named after major mountain ranges located in this world. We get to see the titular Shattered Pillars and a host of other places delineated and explored, as well as Tsarepheth, Samarkar’s adoptive city, returning in a major way. As I said, the Rahazeen have not been idle. We also get to see, obliquely, a little more of how her cosmology works in terms of how areas might switch allegiance, and we get to see a sky that is not at all hospitable to man.
The strength of this series, though, even beyond the wonderful world building, is the characters. It’s the little moments, like when we get small reveals about character. Each character has a distinct voice and personality, and it’s easy to know who’s talking even without any overt cues. It’s also the big stuff, like when characters make difficult choices. It’s the amazingly complicated relationship brewing between Temur and Samarkar, and much more. The dialogue between characters is wonderful and revealing. Edene’s lack of other protagonists to play against does weaken her in this regard, but she does have others to talk to. I loved the pair of twins, antagonists no less, who reminded me strongly of Bannon and Vree from Tanya Huff’s novel Fifth Quarter. There is even characterization and a reveal regarding Bansh (Dumpling), Temur’s horse. Few authors outside a precious few have successfully made horses not only realistic, but realistic characters. Bear treads into that territory and makes it work.
The major weakness I found is that a couple of the minor characters from the first novel seemed to get a lot of short shrift for much of the novel. Hsuing and Hrahima do finally get a sequence of their own later in the book, but for a lot of the novel, they feel like “pink fog” following along with Temur and Samarkar. To use a roleplaying game metaphor, it is as if their players are absent for several game sessions, and only later do they return, and given a highlight for the gladness.
And of course, this being a middle book in the series, Shattered Pillars finds itself in the position of a bridge between its predecessor and what comes next. The sense of a good stopping point for this volume isn’t as clean as it was in Range of Ghosts, and frankly, the novel doesn’t attempt too hard to tie off things and provide a temporary stopping point. I suspect this would be less of an issue if one were immediately reading the forthcoming Steles of the Sky immediately thereafter.
And as far as other series concerns, starting the series at Shattered Pillars isn’t quite hopeless. The author does enfold enough of the first novel’s plot and setup that newcomers probably could make a go of it. But Range of Ghosts was my favorite novel of 2012 and you would be doing yourself a disservice if you did skip it in favor of this one.
With Shattered Pillars, Bear shows that her foray into Epic Fantasy has not been a one shot wonder, and is clearly one of the most able authors writing today. No reader of secondary world fantasy should miss this series.
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