Vows Kept, Expectations Met, and Truths Revealed Under Shifting Skies – A Review of Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear

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Most readers, I think, like to guess at the ending of a novel. I personally think it’s part of the fun of reading, actually: you know the author is going to take one someplace interesting – or at least, one hopes that’s what the author is going to do – but whether it’s the sort of interesting one expects, or the sort of interesting one does not expect, is the question. Some readers like having a story end precisely the way they want it to, but there are others who don’t mind getting an ending they didn’t expect – and that’s the kind of reader I am.

But then again, when I try to guess the ending of a novel, I’m not concerned about whether it will be a happy ending, or sad ending: I’m more concerned with whether or not the ending rings true to what came before it. After all, a story can end happily but not be consistent with everything that came before it – it rings false, feels dissonant when compared to the rest of the story. Any ending, happy or sad, needs to be justified, because there’s nothing more disappointing than an unjustified ending, happy or not.

In the case of novel series, this means that the last book is especially important. When one has more than one book in which to tell a story, this can leave a great many loose ends behind, most of which need to be tied up as tidily as possible – though not all, since it’s more than acceptable to leave a few threads hanging loose. But this also means that the reader has been waiting patiently for however many books it took to get to this last one, and this means that the ending has to be equally spectacular – or, at the very least, one that rings true to everything that came before it.

That is the case with Steles of the Sky the last book in Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky Trilogy. Set immediately after the events of the second book, Shattered Pillars, Steles of the Sky follows not only Re Temur and his companions, but also other characters who were further developed in Shattered Pillars, like Tsering, Wizard of Tsarepheth, and Saadet, Nameless assassin and now widow of Temur’s chief rival for the Khaganate – all thanks to the planning and manipulation of Saadet’s adoptive father, al-Sepehr. It also tells the story of Yangchen, Empress of Rasa, and introduces the Uthman poetess Ümmühan, who turns out to be far, far more than what she appears to be. All of these characters will become crucial in the story told in this novel: that of al-Sepehr’s attempt to conquer the world, and the rest of the world’s attempt to stop him.

If that sounds a little too straightforward, it is, I suppose. After all, that’s what the novel is about, at its most basic: al-Sepehr has been planning this since the first book, and put his plan into motion at the end of the second, so naturally the third book would be about how that plan worked out. But any reader of epic fantasy knows that that’s how last books in series go, so that’s not really the point. The point is following the characters the reader has come to love (and hate), and find out how they deal with the coming end – and what happens to them when they meet it.

And in this case, Bear most certainly delivers, with well-loved characters becoming even more loved, and some perhaps-hated characters developing and growing into characters the reader might love, or at the very least respect. At this late stage of the story it can be hard to accomplish that, but Bear manages to do so, as shown by the characters Yangchen and Ümmühan.

The best example of the above is Yangchen. In the second book, I absolutely despised her, writing her off as a power-hungry, Cersei-esque character who would do anything to put her son on the throne, including collaborating with al-Sepehr. It was al-Sepehr, after all, who provided her with the potions needed to ensure that her sister-wives only gave birth to daughters, while she herself gave birth to the one son and heir of the Rasan throne. This meant, of course, she would become the premier wife, and therefore Empress, of the entire empire – her goal since marrying the heir to the Rasan throne and his brother. But apart from that, it’s revealed in Shattered Pillars that she was the reason behind the demon-plague – the same plague that killed Temur’s mother and brought Tsarepheth to its knees. Because of that, Yangchen should have had my disfavour for the rest of the series.

But towards the end of Shattered Pillars, she comes face to face with the consequences of her actions, and in Steles of the Sky she not only pays for her deeds, but also learns from them, growing into a character I could not only respect, but actually like. Her side of the storyline – involving leading refugees from Tsarepheth to the safer Rasan heartland – is an amazing story of her growth from petty princess to a true leader of her people. It was a great pleasure reading all about it, particularly when she thinks about what her father taught her, realises that he was so very, very wrong, and vowing that her son – who will be Emperor of Rasa once he is old enough – will never grow up to be the dictator she herself had the potential to be.

I’m really, truly glad that Bear did this for Yangchen. It’s not often that characters who do evil are portrayed as regretting their deeds and then doing their best to repent for them, and reading about Yangchen living through those regrets, and becoming stronger for them, was something I really enjoyed. I wish I could have seen more of her, but there were plenty of other characters that needed attention, and I think it was enough to know that she had actually changed for the better.

As for Ümmühan, her story is equally fascinating, though different from Yangchen’s. The reader’s first glimpse of her in Shattered Pillars is fairly brief, introducing her as a slave and poetess in the service of the Uthman Caliph, but in Steles of the Sky Ümmühan gets star treatment. Her position as both a slave and the finest poet of her time puts her in an interesting position: she has power, in her own way, but not, either. Her art makes her exalted (particularly in a culture that values words), but her position in the social hierarchy means she’s overlooked quite often, as well. But Ümmühan knows the value of her place in the world, and the value of her skills, and she uses them to great effect for her own, personal cause.

There is a clear and strong feminist thread that runs through the course of the series, and Bear uses different female characters to get the point across. In Steles of the Sky that role falls to Ümmühan, and with her poet’s skill and rapier wit she makes some very fine, incisive remarks about men and the fragility of their machismo. For instance:

“Men were such fragile creatures, so easy to manipulate. So much less than human.

It was not their fault. They could not help it that she had been made in the Scholar-God’s image, when they were poor copies at best. Deep down, Ümmühan suspected that this was why they felt the need to keep women collared like cats, in cages like birds. It was a pathetic attempt to own a soul more numinous than theirs, an urge to get closer to the divine by controlling those who were naturally more attuned to it.”

Or this (the Hasitani being a group of female scholars who travelled all around the caliphate, offering their services as scribes and doctors, to name but a few of their skills):

“Men, in her experience, were eager to believe that women were silly, incompetent, small-minded. Even if they were Hasitani, poets, or others who glorified heaven through their work—as if the Scholar-God would make fools in her own image.”

It is interesting that her words should ring true even in the context of the real world, but that is one of the marvels of fiction: a writer can build an entire fantasy world, but have their characters still say and do things that the reader will recognise in the context of their own, lived experience. Though Ümmühan is fictional, and the world she lives in is fictional, the words Bear puts into her mouth still ring with truth outside of the context in which she says them.

Though I personally think Yangchen and Ümmühan were the standouts of this novel, other characters develop by leaps and bounds as well, becoming remarkable in their own way. I speak, in particular, of Tsering, the wizard without magic, Samarkar’s mentor at the start of Range of Ghosts, and one of the most important characters in the Tsarepheth plotline in Shattered Pillars. After finishing Shattered Pillars I knew she was going to become important in Steles of the Sky – though in a way I did not expect. Still, it made me happy to read about her becoming important, especially because Tsering is a wizard with no magic. One always expects the people like Samarkar to become great, and in Samarkar’s case it’s a greatness she has earned, in her own way. But Tsering became great not because she had magic in her, but because she had none – and how that makes her great is made clear towards the end of the novel, when her actions actually bring the war to a close.

I’m also particularly happy with the way Temur, Edene, and Samarkar got together. It would have been so ridiculously easy for this to become a trite and messy love triangle, but I should have known better than to worry, because Bear obviously knows her stuff and these three got on just fine, with Edene viewing Samarkar as a sister-wife and as a friend and ally precisely because they both love Temur. And it’s always been clear throughout the course of the novels that Samarkar is not jealous of Temur’s feelings for Edene – after all, never once has she tried to stop him from looking for her, because she knows how important Edene is to him, and knows that Temur’s heart is big enough for the both of them.

But now that I speak of Edene, I would just like to say this: there have been many Ringbearers in fantasy fiction, but I think Edene could eat them all for breakfast, given her fortitude against the seductive whispers of the Green Ring of Erem. I apologise to Frodo, for his burden was a great one, but I do personally think that Edene could have taken the One Ring straight off to Mordor and dropped it into the fire, all the while giving Sauron all the sass she has in her possession – all this while wearing the One Ring.

As for the plot, it feels a bit scattered, jumping from character to character as Bear tries to tell the story from as many angles as possible. They do come together, eventually, but for a while it feels a bit disorienting, as the reader goes from Reason to Tsarepeth to the Caliphate to Kyiv, and back again. There’s some metaphorical whiplash initially, but Bear does manage to keep a good handle on things and the whiplash is pretty minimal. Also, as I said, the disparate strands of the story do come together towards the end, so the disorientation doesn’t last for very long. Plus, some of the smaller side-stories can be remarkably fun: the one concerning Ato Tesefahun and Iskandar, once-Uthman Caliph, is hilarious, as they act like a pair of grouchy, snarky old men on a long road trip with someone they can only barely stand to be around. Brother Hsiung’s story is also very good, but more because it is a story of leaving home, and coming back – or not, as the case may be. I will admit that I felt teary-eyed while reading that part, a feeling that was matched only later, at the end of the novel.

Overall, Steles of the Sky is a satisfying conclusion to the Eternal Sky Trilogy – an ending that has not one single note of falseness to it. To be sure, not all threads are completely wrapped up, but the most important ones are, and I’m glad it ended the way it did. I was expecting certain characters to die, and certain other characters to live, but no death was wasted at any point in this series (except maybe Shahruz, who might have been better off completely dead, if only so Saadet and the reader don’t have to put up with his petulance).

Oh, and best all: none of the animals died!


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