Elizabeth Bear’s entire Eternal Sky trilogy is now sitting in a neat row on my bookshelf. I adored the first book and consumed the second one so quickly it went by in a blur of semi-divine horses and cool but unpronounceable names. Before I read Steles of the Sky (released on April 10th), it’s worth pausing to reconsider the middle book in what might be one of my favorite fantasy series in recent years.
In Shattered Pillars, Temur and his band of loyal and enigmatic followers continue their quest. But the quest is stranger and less certain than it used to be. Temur wants to save Edene, his horse-riding lady-love, but also reclaim his grandfather’s throne and oust his rival Qori Buqa. In a vast and fractured political landscape dominated by independent city-states, this turns out to be rather difficult. Much of Team Temur’s time is spend navigating the labyrinthine politics of foreign cultures in an attempt to amass a power base. And getting periodically attacked by assassins.
Meanwhile — and in some ways, Shattered Pillars is one, giant meanwhile — the world is growing darker and more complicated. The Bad Guy, al-Sepehr, sends his favorite assassin to infiltrate Qori Buqa’s court. In Tsarepheth, a new and very icky plague infiltrates the city and threatens to topple the ruling family. And Edene, the lady-love supposedly waiting for Temur to rescue her, is actually spending her time getting 1000% more awesome and terrifying. I won’t give it away, but the book opens with Edene walking across a desert accompanied by a sea of scorpions. I have this feeling like her rescue is not going to go according to Temur’s script.
Everything that I loved about Range of Ghosts is still here, and still fantastic: the way the skies change from culture to culture, the fellowship of unique and charismatic heroes, the clever reworking of West Asian history into a mythic landscape. The muscular, immersive sentences that few epic fantasy writers take the time to craft. The tough, intelligent, zero-bullshit female characters who aren’t just love interests or Female Warriors who are Just Like Men. Even if Shattered Pillars was about Temur and his friends taking a knitting class while the bad guy reconsidered his life choices, it would be worth reading.
But it’s also the middle book in a trilogy, which means it will never have the charm of a first book or the epic-ness of a final book. For one thing, Temur himself seemed to get buried among the horde of more experienced and colorful characters. I fell in love with Temur in the first few pages of Range of Ghosts, as he stumbled through an endless battlefield and watched his family’s moons go dark one by one. Alone, his motivations and tragedies felt powerful enough to move armies. In Shattered Pillars, I found myself thinking, Look, buddy, I know you’ve got important protagonist stuff to do or whatever, but there’s a demon plague in Tsarepheth that is a serious problem. Also Edene seems like she’d be a better candidate for world-conqueror.
Actually, that demon plague deserves a paragraph all its own. A sickness appears in the city and — spoiler alert, although if you’ve read this far without reading the book you kind of have it coming — it turns out the hacking cough eventually turns into a bad case of tiny-demon-crawling-out-of-your-lungs. It’s a fine piece of horror writing, because no one can read that without shuddering a little, which echoes the real horrors of thirteenth-century West Asia. The peoples along the Silk Road (Bear’s Celadon Highway) traded goods, ideas, and lots and lots of germs. Usually disease existed as a kind of unfortunate background noise, but sometimes it exploded onto center stage and changed the fates of nations and cultures (like, say, the Black Death). I love to see contagious disease given genuine historical agency.
In the end, Shattered Pillars did what it had to do: Made everything much, much worse for Team Temur. The world, it seems, is now poised on the brink of dissolution, destruction, and disease, and something even darker and more terrifying lurks beneath. Unless Steles of the Sky ends in some unbelievably stupid way — like Temur wakes up in Indiana and realizes it was all a dream, or Samarkar turns out to be an alien come to teach them all about gender equality, or one of my favorite characters dies — this is a series absolutely worth reading.