As it Was in the Beginning: Steles of the Sky

stelesFirst, a confession: I’ve mostly given up on epic fantasy as a genre. I keep circling back to it because I remember the sense of soaring escape it gave me in eighth grade, but the story about intrepid heroes banding together to save the world from evil has long since lost its shine for me. Most of the series I’ve slogged through—including the newly-Hugo-nominated one, which rhymes with Peel of Lime—are mainly useful as doorstops, or possibly as flammable material in some kind of post-apocalyptic situation.[1]

But then sometimes I stumble over an epic fantasy series that reminds me why I keep returning to it: because there’s something buried deep in the marrow of fantasy, well-hidden by pounds of Tolkein knock-offs and Dungeons & Dragons narratives, that resonates with the oldest and grandest of our stories. Because humans are story-telling animals, maker-uppers of wild and strange tales, and the stories we love best are quests. That’s what Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky series has been for me—the best and rarest kind of epic fantasy.

“In the end it was as it had been in the beginning; Temur alone with his liver-bay mare.” (377).

Steles of the Sky, the final book in the trilogy, did exactly what it had to do: It connected the beginning with the end, and the good and bad came together in a crashing, culminating battle, with the odds stacked strongly in favor of the bad. If you’ve read the first two books, you know Temur and his allies raise their banner in opposition to al-Sepehr and everything chaotic and cruel and creepy. If you haven’t read the first two books, what are you doing. Stop. Turn back now.

Everything I loved about the first two books is still here: The cast of compelling and emotionally-real characters, the subtle and satisfying nature of the gender politics, the textured world of Silk Road empires. The only question was whether Bear would be able to carry the weight of expectation and plot development and bring everybody to their necessary ends. Spoiler: She succeeded.

mongol filmThe result is a book full of climactic moments of cinematic flair—which is a snotty way of saying there are scenes in Steles of the Sky that I would pay a great deal of money to see on screen.[2] There’s the pregnant warrior-Queen riding her horse into the sky, hooves licking sparks from the sky, to seek vengeance. There’s an aspiring god riding a giant bird into battle. There’s Temur, leading a herd of mares in a hundred impossible colors. It’s the kind of masterful arranging of characters and colors and purposes that makes you want to pause the book and take a picture.

But of course lots of fantasy books have epic battles with mythical creatures. Lots of them even use historical peoples and events as their inspiration.[3] But very few fantasy books manage to combine history, myth, magic, and culture, and weave a real world out of them. Perhaps due to her anthropological training, Bear has managed to grasp something true about the nature of cultural change. Most fantasy writers are terribly, embarrassingly lazy about culture—the protagonist has something very similar to twenty-first century American values, and he visits places that are almost-offensive collages of other cultures. There are sometimes noble savages, or holy Eastern-ish monks, or oppressed religious fanatics, but nothing that has the weight and messiness of an actual human society. Real culture is something simultaneously hallucinatory and tangible, made out of everything from your favorite food as a child to the stories your uncles told you to the shape of the gods you worshipped. And real culture changes, because it has both a history and a future. The Qersnyk empire, the Uthman Caliphate, the Rasan kingdom—all of Bear’s creations are complicated, fallible, and real.

But I don’t want to make Steles of the Sky sound stodgy or academic. It truly is a work of epic fantasy, which means it has all the satisfying heart-thumping adventure you could ever want, and slightly too many characters to keep track of.[4] There are demons made of glass, and blood ghosts, and dragons lurking in underground lakes. There are banners raised on bloody battlefields. And there is a final scene that will leave you laid out flat on the front porch, crying, explaining to your boyfriend that you’re fine but there are just some things you have to deal with. It’s worth reading a hundred Peel of Limes to find the epic fantasy that leaves you crying on the porch.

For those who have already read it, who are just clicking around the internet looking for someone who understands—highlight below for spoiler-y commiseration.

I cried. A good long cry. And then when I was done crying over Temur, I read the last few pages, and cried again when Bansh carries him into the sky to be remade into star and myth. I won’t say I loved the ending, because I’m the kind of person who can still tear up thinking about Mufasa, and who has never complained about a happily ever after ending. But I will say I was terribly impressed. It’s a very rare writer that can kill her hero without betraying the heart of the books she’s written. Temur’s death doesn’t cheapen his quest or cheat the reader, because these were books were not about the one rightful king taking the throne, so much as the terrifying chaos of cultural change. Empires rising and falling, religions weaving in and out of popular consciousness, borders constantly redrawn. Temur was a kind of historical fulcrum, ultimately crushed beneath the weight of the load. And Edene and Samarkar—well, they’ll take care of things.

 

[1] Honestly I’d freeze to death if all I had was the Earthsea Cycle. But it would be a quicker, nobler death.

[2] Note that these scenes could easily be murdered by CGI, like The Golden Compass and The Hobbit. But I picture them with the sweeping gray-and-gold power of Mongol.

[3] Although most of their historical inspiration comes from Western Europe between about 1000 and 1700—seriously one of the most boring times and places in history. Like, in the 14th century Mansa Musa was crossing the Sahara with 60,000 men and enough gold to single-handedly crash the European market. What was happening in England in the 14th century? A lot of slow, plague-ridden death.

[4] I did like them all, but not all of them turned out to be as critical to the plot as I’d hoped. Ummuhan was one of my very favorites, but in the end she was only a witness to the great motions of the world. And Yangchen? Uh, glad you’re a better human now?

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4 comments

  1. As a person who knows something of horses, I’m often disappointed by books that feature them. Elizabeth Bear did a great job — right down to the genetics.

    If you want to see a real-life Bansh or Afrit, and you haven’t, look up Akhal-Teke. They really are glorious.

  2. This trilogy is on my summer TBR list, and I have to admit that I am really, really excited to get into them! Thanks for a great review!

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