Steles of the Sky

Steles of the Sky concludes Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy. In this we find out the fate of Re Temur, Samarkar, and the host of characters that form the incredibly diverse cast of these books.

If you’ve read the first two, I expect you are already in possession of the third. If you have not read them, may I recommend you pick up a copy of the first book, Range of Ghosts? In brief, The Eternal Sky is epic fantasy as you have never seen it. It’s a fantasyland Central Asia which doesn’t have a fantasyland Europe to bounce off. (Bear mentioned on Twitter that, at some point, she might explain what happened to Europe in this world. Something about there only being scattered islands west of Russia, or something.) The Eternal Sky posits a highly complex world of shifting empires and faiths, and shows us a moment in which everything hangs in the balance, for everyone.

It’s very, very good.

What struck me most about Steles of the Sky, though, was not the complexity of the world-building (which, I swear to you, is a fucking delight unto mine eyes. I grew up on Map Books, and this is a Map Book for the records. For the ages. For all the damn awards.) but the complexity of the characters.

Every point of view character — and there are many, in this trilogy — has their own point of view.

This book is a masterclass unto itself in how to do such a thing right. How it is DONE. How it is done WELL. Every character has a reason for being where they are, doing what they are doing. They have their own, internally-generated motivations and goals. Each character is a human being and the plot never forgets that, not for a moment.

This is made even more delightful by the fact that half the main characters are women. And all of them are non-Europeans. (Hitting Europe with an asteroid, or whatever happened, will do that.) This book never forgets that it is not in fantasyland Europe. Its analogies and metaphors are generated from its myriad cultures. Its values and gods are generated in the same way. There is no Zeus-Analogy-God here.

And yet none of this is hard on the reader. Do you have any idea how wonderous that is? To make something so different from the reflexive, easy, Tolkein-riff and yet make it comprehensible? I reveled in these new cultures and worlds. I rolled in them, luxuriating in this thing that was just like the things I am conditioned to love, but so much better. Different. Greater. More.

The Eternal Sky makes the world wider, not smaller. It gives us as humans more room to become, more room to grow. These books are part of what makes us better people, more empathetic, more understanding, smarter, more compassionate. And these books make us enjoy the experience.

I want to point out one trope that I particularly enjoyed seeing punctured. There is a moment, near the end, when a character is granted their full and entire agency at long last. And said character uses that agency to try and kill a Good Character.

I loved that moment.

I loved that agency does not equal Good According to Me. I loved that evil was not made up entirely of enslavement, but also stemmed from selfish choices. I loved that the moment of truth and autonomy meant a doubling-down on Things I As a Reader Did Not Want. At least, for that particular character.

Good for them, doing what they wanted and not what a more conventional narrative would have demanded. Good for them, being a fully-realized character with their own motivations. And good for Bear to know how to do such a thing.

Thank you, Bear. Thank you for these books. I love them. I am so very pleased to hear that another trilogy in the same world is in the works. I look forward to it with all my heart.

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