BOOK REVIEW: Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear
BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: Re Temur, Samarkar, Edene and their companions stand against much more than just an usurping Uncle, with the fate of much more than the Eternal Sky of the Steppe in the balance.
PROS: Deep worldbuilding; rich characters; beautiful prose and dialogue that sings.
CONS: The ending brings tears; one secondary character still feels a little underdone.
BOTTOM LINE: Sticking the landing, Steles of the Sky magnificently ends the Eternal Sky trilogy
All roads lead not to the Eternal City, but to Dragon Lake. For it is at Dragon Lake, at the borders of the steppe and the Song Empire, that Re Temur and his companions and friends are bound. He has decided to be Khagan, and challenge his uncle who has usurped his birthright. In the first two books of the Eternal Sky trilogy (Range of Ghosts and The Shattered Pillars), he has gained allies and lost his life partner (who is making her own slow way back to Temur), but the time has come for Temur to “put up or shut up.” Where better to declare oneself Khagan than at the site where the Great Khagan, his grandfather, ruled from? But to walk that Dragon Road, and to take up that mantle will require fighting against forces far greater than a usurper at the head of a Horse archer army. For the fate of much more than the steppe of the Eternal Sky is at stake. Much more. Mukhtar Al-Idoj, lord of the Nameless, has a great and dread plan that makes the dynastic struggle between Temur and his Uncle seem like children squabbling over a sand castle.
The final book of the Eternal Sky trilogy, Steles of the Sky ups the ante in including in all the things you want in an epic fantasy. In addition to the enchanted horses, ghuls, ruins of an elder civilization, the various nighttime and daytime skies of the various polities and the various characters we have met before…we get new things, too: Dragons! Magical Plagues! Armies at war with blade and spellcraft! Dread curses! There’s an intelligent and malevolent magic item that, yes, is a Ring of Power, but owes little to Sauron’s creation. There are Magic Doorways (the lore and use of which helps flesh out and empower a character who had gotten some sort shrift in the series). Readers get a mother with a newborn leading an army into battle. There are noble sacrifices. And, oh the characters. Women in roles of power and agency.
In fact, most of the major characters in the novel, and the series outside of Temur himself are women. We also get characters of a variety of ethnicities and races, a variety of beliefs, customs, religions and overall diversity that puts a wide swath of the same-old same-old fantasy to eclipse and shame. Steles of the Sky embodies my idea of what Silk Road Fantasy can bring as a subgenre to Epic Fantasy. (Disclosure: the novel is dedicated to Saladin Ahmed’s children, which only makes it clear that the author’s goals are aligned to my own perceptions of what the novel does and what it’s for.)
If I am making the book sound like it’s just jam-packed with the best fantasy elements, it is. And yet it all makes sense. It all fits together like a beautiful clockwork that, when wound up, sings. There is poetry in the words, and strong descriptive action, too. There’s even snarky humor, when the occasion arises. (I loved Samakar’s reaction to an embassy from a Princess of Song, presenting herself as a potential marriage-of-alliance candidate to Temur.) Lurking beneath the surface, and off the corners of the page, the rich fantasy world of the Eternal Sky universe is a magnificent creation, peopled by characters to know, and love, and cheer for, and root against, and spend the most precious gift an author can get from a reader: their time. The novel could have been Sandersonian in size and length and not exhausted its welcome, but its relative brevity shows the economy of the author’s writing.
And the ending will bring tears to your eyes, if you have any heart. But it is the right ending. You will know it to be true when you read it.
Steles of the Sky stands as tall as the Range of Ghosts, and taller than the mighty The Shattered Pillars in bringing this series to a conclusion. I envy those of you who have not yet delved into this series, and welcome you into the conversation of the ideas, the characters, the worldbuilding it invokes and evokes on the other side of reading it. See you on the Celadon Highway.
Tagged with: Elizabeth Bear
Filed under: Book Review
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