STELES OF THE SKY – Elizabeth Bear (2014)

Steles Of The SkyReviewing the final book of a series is always a strange affair. There’s the need to not repeat too much from the previous reviews, and the need to avoid spoiling anything for those who still haven’t read the earlier books. Plus the review should be interesting for both those who have and those who haven’t read what came before.

I’m taking the easy way out, and opt for a rather short write-up. Should you decide to just skim this review, no problemo, but please, don’t miss the quote near the end.

Steles Of The Sky is the sequel to Shattered Pillars – one of the best books I read in 2015 – and the last book of the Eternal Sky trilogy. Together they form one long story that needs to be read in order. It is set on something “resembling the steppes, deserts and mountain ranges of Eurasia after the death of Genghis Khan” I wrote in the review of Range Of Ghosts, but that needs a caveat: Steles features a riffle, and that adds a bit of 19th century flavor. This one riffle doesn’t appear out of place at all, and that fact that it’s even in the book shows Bear’s willingness to take a chance, and her restraint too. In the hands of a lesser writer, the riffle might have turned entire chapters of the book into something steampunkish, out of the fashionable need to explicitely blend genres.

Whether this is the 12th or the early 19th century, it’s not important, as this isn’t historical fiction, but original fantasy. Yet it doesn’t feel like fantasy for large parts – and also that shows the restraint of Elizabeth Bear, as this trilogy isn’t just fantasy, but High Fantasy. The final battle features hundreds of wizards, green firebolts, a mist dragon, flying sorcerers, an armor that was a gift of a djinn, and magical horses. It doesn’t get a lot more epic, not even in a Sanderson novel. Yet on most pages, the Eternal Sky is first and foremost a human story, about people (and giant cats) living in a very specific setting, under the dome of the vast skies – firmly grounded in the natural.

Steles Of The Sky is the installment with the highest dose of “high” fantasy stuff, and Bear’s canvas becomes a whole lot bigger because of it. Range Of Ghosts started small and subdued, Shattered Pillars added a morbid, necromantic vibe, and Steles Of The Sky ends with a short but big bang of magic.

Still, I’m a bit sad to report that Steles Of The Sky is my least favorite book of the series. It doesn’t have the eerie quality of the previous book, and lacks the freshness of the first. Mind you: it is still more than enjoyable, but I expected a bit more, as Bear set a high bar for herself with the first books.

The book’s main flaw is the fact that more than 350 of the 429 pages are chiefly build-up to the final stand-off. It’s not a slow build-up, Bear’s pacing is great, but build-up is build-up. There’s planning and foreshadowing, and as a result what happens during that battle is almost fully predictable. Then again, maybe that’s the point, as these books ultimately aren’t about battles and battle magic. They are about people (and giant cats), and Bear again shows her skill at using crisp, concise sentences to evoke real feelings.

She looked at him, hating how the tightness of her lower lip drew up at the center as she fought tears.

&

She was not an old woman – just a grown one – but for the moment she felt her age on her like armor.

During the build-up, we get to know a lot of the characters a lot better. Both Hrahima and Hong get deeply moving backstories, evoked in no more than a few pages each. They appear so out of the blue that their emotional impact is all the stronger. In a way, they need all the surrounding pages to achieve that effect, and as such justify the fact that this book is more of a slow burner than the previous two. To me, these parts were the highlights of the book.

Or maybe that’s not really true. The highlight of the book is this quote:

And yet, already, the yak cows were calving; the mares were foaling their leggy, attenuated, alien-looking fillies and colts. The meals that had achieved a stultifying sameness in the dark of winter now included eye-watering wild onions no bigger than a chickpea and the roasted remains of stillborn lambs, buried in the embers overnight.

To me, a quote like this is the mark of great literature. Bear unites the strange essences of time, nature, energy, the human condition and death, all in one passage, just two sentences long. It’s a profound prose poem.

I maybe should have said something about the neat, clever ways Bear introduces a couple of gender themes in Steles, but you’ll see for yourself. I don’t feel like writing another longer paragraph, as I want the above quote to resonate until the very end of this review.

Although this last book isn’t its best, The Eternal Sky trilogy is something special. I look forward to start reading The Edda of Burdens in a few months.

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