Paths Cross, Worlds Spin, and War Brews Under a Shifting Sky – A Review of Shattered Pillars by Elizabeth Bear

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Stories come with different speeds. This is something anyone learns once they start engaging actively in any kind of storytelling medium, whether it’s television, movies, or printed media. There are slow stories, and fast stories; there are stories that start really fast and then slow down; and then there are stories that start slow and then pick up speed. A story’s speed is often determined by a number of factors: it’s genre, for instance: action stories tend to be very fast-paced, while dramas tend to be slower. Medium can also determine speed of a story: stories told via more visual media tend to move faster than stories told purely textually.

In novels, while genre determines speed in its own way, there’s a lot more leeway to play with it than in any other medium. Authors can slow down or speed up the narration of their novel as they will, depending on how skilled they are or on their intent. With series, especially, they can spread out that speed as long as they need to, cranking it up and turning it down depending on the plot.

In the case of Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky Trilogy, it appears that Bear has chosen to start slow, and then ramp up the speed. Most of the action only really gets going in the first novel, Range of Ghosts, and in the second novel Shattered Pillars, really picks up speed and begins to show the potential for a truly epic, explosive end.

Shattered Pillars picks up where Range of Ghosts left off. Edene makes her way to Erem, dreaming of presenting Temur with an army; al-Sepehr continues his plotting; and Temur, Samarkar, Hrahima, and Brother Hsiung take some time off their journey to gather information and, maybe, allies, while staying in the home of Temur’s maternal grandfather, Ato Tesefahun.

But things don’t stay quiet for very long. Trouble pursues Temur and his companions as they make their way to Ala-Din to find Edene, while al-Sepehr’s plotting has brought down plague upon the land – not least in the wizard city of Tsarepheth, where Samarkar’s brothers and wizard colleagues find themselves in a standoff against both disease and revolution. And elsewhere, al-Sepehr, with help from Saadet/Shahruz, puts his plans into complete action. A war, not just for the rulership of the Khaganate, but of the very world itself, is about to begin.

As I mentioned earlier, Range of Ghosts starts out pretty slow, with most of the action only really picking up in the latter third of the novel. For the most part, two-thirds of that novel is about world-building and introducing the characters, ensuring that we’re attached to most of them and understanding some, if not all, of their motivations before they move on to the next leg of their journey.

But Shattered Pillars is another thing entirely. The pace is much, much faster this time around, as if Bear can already see the end and wants the reader to know that, too. Events pile up one on top of the other, each connected to the other in ways that might not be immediately apparent, but which are made clear as one goes through the story. The race is well and truly on, so to speak, and the first one to the finish line will most certainly be the winner – a winner who gets to dictate the fate of the entire world.

However, that doesn’t mean there’s no character development. In fact, what I found most enjoyable about this novel was that the plot actually shaped the characters, instead of them simply reacting to it. Temur and Samarkar, for instance, change in ways that will prove vital in the next book: Temur has to realise that he must face down his brother and become Khagan, which is something he didn’t ever think he’d be; whereas Samarkar is coming to grips with what it means to be a wizard, while at the same time still being Once-Princess.

There is also their relationship with each other, which is romantic in some ways, and in other ways, isn’t. I’m not inclined to read their relationship as romantic, still, but I suppose there’s some romantic feeling in there. For the most part, I read their relationship as one borne of loyalty and support, and an emotional understanding of each other that does, and doesn’t, have to do with romance. I actually like that I can’t pin down their relationship to any one specific kind: what’s important is that they care for each other, and are determined to help the other reach their goals. After all, isn’t that what all the best relationships are about?

Hrahima and Brother Hsiung also come into their own in this novel. It becomes increasingly clear that Hrahima is something else entirely, that although she disavows her relationship with the god of her people, she might actually be more intimately connected to said god than she likes to let on. This is made clear not only from Samarkar’s observations of her, but from Hrahima’s own thoughts, since she becomes a point-of-view character in this novel. While Hrahima also has a rather intriguing tragic past, I find her relationship with her god more interesting, especially since she both acknowledges its existence, and rejects it, as this quote shows:

”I don’t believe in God. She drops by and we argue about it.”

I love this idea, that one can acknowledge the existence of a god and actually choose to reject it. It makes Hrahima absolutely fascinating as a character, and raises some interesting possibilities for any readers who are currently questioning their faith.

As for Brother Hsiung, there’s some interesting potential in the way his story is going, especially where it relates to the mysterious “writings of Erem” that al-Sepehr is using to achieve his goals – the Lovecraft references make me happy, but I would really like to see more of his character taking a more obvious turn in terms of development, much in the same way that Hrahima developed in this novel. That might happen in the last novel, but I suspect Brother Hsiung is slated for death, which is why he isn’t being developed very much.

The villains become more interesting as well. While I’m not sure what to make just yet of al-Sepehr except his desire to spread the hold of his god over the whole world, the twins, Saadet and Shahruz, are more interesting now than they were in the last book, not least because they now share the same body (Saadet’s). Saadet’s commentary on her brother’s attitude towards her actions (especially where they involve seducing or otherwise interacting with men) makes me smile, mostly because it has some nice feminist commentary in it. While there’s quite a bit of it all throughout the book (and in the first book too), I like the sharper edge Saadet brings to her observations on men and the way they treat and interact with women.

But what really gets to me about this book is not what happens to the main characters, protagonist and antagonist alike, but a side-story involving a place and people that I’ve grown immensely fond of: the wizard city of Tsarepheth, and the characters whose stories take place within it. In this particular plot thread, a magical plague created (or, rather, unleashed) by al-Sepehr enters Tsarepheth, and leads to death and, further down the line, revolution. It focuses on Tsering-la, Samarkar’s mentor, companion, and friend from the first book, and introduces Hong-la, a wizard of Tsarepheth who uncovers the true source of the plague.

Now, it must be said that from the moment it was first described in Range of Ghosts, I fell in love with the Tsarepheth: an isolated city filled with scholars, who were free to devote their time to whichever project they so chose, pursuing such in an environment that encouraged collaboration with their peers. It was a city I wanted to live in, populated by people I wanted to work with and get to know. Therefore, reading about its fall in Range of Ghosts – a fall that happens by degrees, since it takes up an entire storyline all of its own – was painful. While I was concerned about what happened to the other characters, I was mostly concerned about what was happening to Tsarepheth. I didn’t want to see it go, even if I knew it would, and it was heartbreaking to see it destroyed, both from without and from within.

On the other hand, I was happy to see Tsering-la developed into a full character in her own right. I’d liked her well enough when she was first introduced in Range of Ghosts, but like Hrahima and Brother Hsiung, she is developed further in this novel, and turns out to be a character I really like. It’s likely I’ll see more of her in the next novel – hopefully she joins up again with Samarkar and the others.

Overall, Shattered Pillars is an excellent continuation of the series. It doesn’t suffer from middle book syndrome, thankfully enough – indeed, it’s a better read than the first book in the series. The plot is expanded and goes much faster, and the characters are developed further – developed well, in fact. Everything is set up for what I predict will be a giant explosion of a conclusion in the third book, and while I suspect that some characters I love will die, I’m now certain they won’t have died in vain.

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