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The Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear


Elizabeth Bear concludes her award-winning epic fantasy trilogy, The Eternal Sky, with Steles of the Sky.

Re Temur, exiled heir to his grandfather’s Khaganate, has finally raised his banner and declared himself at war with his usurping uncle. With his companions—the Wizard Samarkar, the Cho-tse Hrahima, and the silent monk Brother Hsiung—he must make his way to Dragon Lake to gather in his army of followers.

Temur has many enemies, and they are not idle. The sorcerer who leads the Nameless Assassins, whose malice has shattered the peace of all the empires of the Celedon Highway, has struck at Temur’s uncle already. To the south, in the Rasan empire, a magical plague rages. To the east, the great city of Asmaracanda has burned, and the Uthman Caliph is deposed. And in the hidden ancient empire of Erem, Temur’s son has been born, and a new moon has risen in the Eternal Sky.
Being a review of the final installment in a trilogy, this post will contain spoilers for both Range of Ghosts and Shattered Pillars

As the blurb notes, this is the concluding volume of the utterly mindblowingly good Eternal Sky trilogy. I’ve been sold on Elizabeth Bear’s writing pretty much since I first encountered it, but I honestly never expecting anything this stunningly good out of her. Not that the trilogy is flawless – Shattered Pillars suffers a little from Middle Book Problems, and slows down a lot; even in this book there are occasional moments of near-deus ex machina (including some literal ones), but that doesn’t stop this being an absolutely phenomenal and necessary read as a series.

To long-time readers of Bear, her worldbuilding prowess will be nothing new, but each volume of The Eternal Sky trilogy has expanded upon the world of the prior ones, whilst also reestablishing that world; this volume brings us into contact with the people of Kyiv, with its great gate, but also an expansion of our understanding of Song, of Rasan, and most especially of the Nameless. This novel refuses to culturally take sides – whilst it has a villain, the peoples he leads are not inherently evil, just misled or misguided, and the treatment of the different cultures of Steles of the Sky – including the mutual respect by members of those cultures – is a fascinating contrast to so much epic fantasy.

Similarly, Bear’s characterwork is famously good. There are some solid emotional beats in this novel that get the reader gleeful, sobbing, or fretting, often within a few pages of each other; every character, from Re Temur (the notional protagonist) to Saateh (one of his antagonists, whose twin brother now shares his body after his death at Temur’s hands), but even those characters such as the Cho-Tse Hrashima who get only one point-of-view section, are drawn sympathetically, fully, humanly. Every character has their individual drives, but also their individual tragedies; no one survives this series unscathed, but the way Bear handles this maturation process is absolutely beautiful and perfectly done, rendering everyone – from the young, seen-too-much Edene to the older, more mature Samarkar – vividly and with their flaws. Occasionally some things can be a bit repetitive; the surprise of people at the innocence of their less-experienced contemporaries can become wearing, for instance; but on the whole Steles of the Sky balances its character bears beautifully.

This brings us onto the plot. Drawing together the diverse threads of a trilogy as complex as The Eternal Sky, with as many characters, peoples, ideas, political themes, and so on, is a complex, delicate operation. It’s also one Bear manages incredibly deftly in Steles of the Sky; despite one or two foreshadowed moments feeling like dei ex machinae in spite of their foreshadowing, the plot as a whole works beautifully, and the fifty-odd pages that form the climax of the book are stunningly well executed; the conflict to which the whole trilogy has been building is written with all the fast-paced action, reversals and re-reversals of fortune, and nail-biting tension you could possibly want, but also retaining the heart that is Bear’s greatest strength. It’s here, unfortunately, that one of the moments where the plot does stumble a little, with a few too many things just conveniently working out right, but Steles of the Sky rides onwards powerfully, pulling the reader over those bumpy parts into the juicy goodness that follows. Indeed, the final pages of the novel are some of the most affecting I have ever read, and are truly beautiful writing.

Honestly, if you’re a fan of epic fantasy, there is no excuse not to read The Eternal Sky trilogy; Bear’s writing continues to mature and improve, and this is a true masterwork, which puts pretty much every other epic fantasy out there to shame. Steles of the Sky is the perfect conclusion to a truly awe-inspiring trilogy.

DoI: This review was based on an Advance Uncorrected Proof of the novel. I still intend to buy a copy for the beautiful, beautiful cover illustration, of course.

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