Book Review: The Eternal Sky Trilogy by Elizabeth Bear
About the Books
Title: The Eternal Sky trilogy — Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars, and Steles of the Sky
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Format: eBook and print
Rating: 4 out of 5 total (3/5 for Range of Ghosts and Shattered Pillars, 4/5 for Steles of the Sky)
How I got this book: I purchased Range of Ghosts to read on my Kobo, then got the two sequels from the library
Note: This review is long and contains some spoilers. I think I’ve learned my lesson about trying to review an entire series at once. Oy.
When Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings, he popularized several concepts that by now have become fantasy tropes: magic, kingdoms and dynasties, a battle for the fate of the world, etc. Unfortunately, Tolkien’s Eurocentricism has also become a trope: you can’t write a fantasy series where all the good (pale, tall) guys come from the West and all the evil (and dark-skinned) guys come from the East without deserving at least a little bit of side-eye.
That’s why it’s so refreshing to read a series like the Eternal Sky trilogy by Elizabeth Bear: instead of using medieval Europe as the template for her fantasy series, she’s cast her eye far northeast and built an epic story based on the world of the Mongols and the Asian Steppes, with several imagined cultures standing in for those of our world. Instead of the Silk Road, you’ve got the Celadon Highway. Instead of the Mongols, you’ve got the horse-loving, egalitarian, yet war-like Qersnyk who worship the Eternal Sky. And instead of empires in the Middle East, Tibet, and China, you’ve got the Uthman Caliphate, the Rasan Empire, and the various principalities of the Song.
Re Temur is the grandson of the Great Khagan, whose empire stretches along the length of the Celadon Highway, fostering trade and accepting tribute. The death of the Great Khagan divided the Khaganate as two came forth to claim the Padparadscha Seat: Temur’s older brother, Qulan, and his uncle, Qori Buqa.
As Range of Ghosts opens, Temur is one of the few survivors of the battlefield after his uncle’s victory over his now-dead brother. But in the aftermath of the battle, as he joins a refugee train heading for the mountains, events overtake him and he sets on a path to rescue his lover, Edene, who has been kidnapped by a supernatural force.
He eventually learns that the person behind Edene’s kidnapping is also the same puppetmaster that’s been secretly pulling his uncle’s strings: Mukhtar ai-Idoj, a sorcerer secretly working to sow discord across the Steppes in order to resurrect the Carrion King, an evil power that the gods defeated ages ago.
As Temur travels to stop ai-Idoj’s nefarious plans, he makes several allies. The most important are Samarkar, a former Rasan princess who gave up royal life to become a wizard; Brother Hsiung, a blind monk who has taken an oath of silence; and Hrahima, who is literally a walking, talking tiger. (Yes, bipedal sentient tigers are a thing in this series, and they are fucking awesome.)
Oh, and there’s also Bansh, Temur’s trusty mare who is more than what she seems. The other characters catch on pretty quick that she’s not your average horse.
There is just so much going on in these books that I haven’t mentioned yet. There are the wizards of Tsarepheth, who give up their reproductive abilities for the prospect of gaining magical power — only some actually do, even if all wizards go under the knife. When we first meet Samarkar, she’s literally recovering from a magical hysterectomy. (I don’t know why, but I love this idea so much. That a culture in a fantasy setting actually has the medical knowledge and skill to do this sort of invasive surgery is pretty cool, in my book.)
There are also the various skies of the world itself, which change to reflect the religion of the local ruling power. The religion of Temur’s people, the Eternal Sky, results in a lush blue sky with multiple moons at night. The sky of the Razaheen, the sect of the villain ai-Idoj, has a sun that rises in the west and sets in the east. Then there’s the sky of the Song, which doesn’t really have a night at all — instead it has two suns with different levels of brightness, resulting in multiple kinds of twilight.
And I still haven’t mentioned things like the ghuls, djinns, and dragons that show up. Oh, and did I mention that it’s heavily implied that the dragons are radioactive? And that the magic of the wizards of Tsarepheth is based on a rough understanding of atomic theory?
No? I didn’t mention those yet? Did I mention that the second book in the series also features a demonic plague that’s gory enough to rival the chestburster scene in Alien?
(If you can’t guess, I think the sheer inventiveness here is delicious.)
From a diversity perspective, the Eternal Sky books are pretty good; there are straight characters, gay characters, women and men of all ages, and even intersex characters. Also, almost none of them are white. The covers do a good job of this as well — there’s no whitewashing here, and it’s particularly clear on the cover of Shattered Pillars that the main characters are Asian. However, I thought that making the villain come from a pseudo-Muslim culture was a really bad decision, especially considering that the villain’s sect is misogynistic. It’s a bit too narratively convenient, you know?
I could also have done without the implication throughout the books that the intersex characters have two fully functioning sets of reproductive organs. There are a lot of different ways that people can be intersex, and the series’s treatment of this identity type strikes a really sour note in comparison to almost everything else.
There are other faults I’ve found with the series, such as the abruptness of certain plot events (especially the fall of the Uthman Caliphate in Shattered Pillars) and the contradictory motivations of secondary characters like Ümmühan, a slave poetess, and Anil, a wizardly peer of Samarkar’s.
Plus, the plot arcs of two of Samarkar’s sisters-in-law were cut short. One sister-in-law, Payma, travels on a perilous journey with Temur and Samarkar in Range of Ghosts but is never seen again once they find a safe place for her to stay; after that, she’s not mentioned at all in the second book and only once in the final one. The other sister-in-law, Empress Yangchen, grows a lot as a person over the course of the series, but her character is pretty much forgotten about in the final third or so of Steles of the Sky only for her to be mentioned on the final page of the trilogy without any context about how she met up with the other main characters. That’s a particular head-scratcher.
However, there were other character arcs that I loved, like those of Brother Hsiung, the blind monk, and Tsering, a wizard who is skilled in magical theory but never actually manifests magical power herself. There’s also the fact that the series avoids the trope of having the relationships between Temur, Edene, and Samarkar devolve into a bitchy, catty love triangle. Temur ends up having sexual relationships with both Samarkar and Edene, and both women like each other once they finally meet in Steles of the Sky. In the lead-up to the final battle, the two women recognize that the three of them together make a pretty formidable team. That’s awesome!
There’s so much more I could say about these books, but won’t because I have no idea if any of you are even reading this far. The prose here is beautiful, even if I felt the ultimate climax of the book needed more groundwork to earn its resolution. The final pages of the book are precisely calibrated to be both beautiful and full of muted mourning. Elizabeth Bear has pulled of an amazingly deft balancing act, and I can’t wait to read more books by her in the future.
What Tea Suits These Books?
Tea shows up repeatedly throughout the Eternal Sky trilogy; I remember that Steles of the Sky has characters at various points drink yak butter tea as well as “a mellow red oolong sweetened with puffed rice”. Those teas sound super interesting!
However, one particular moment in Steles of the Sky made me crow with delight. In advance of the final battle, Temur and his allies have set up camp at Dragon Lake. Unbeknownst to them, the lake’s namesake dragon is still resting there underground; when they discover it, it asks for tribute as per an old treaty with a previous ruler. But here’s the thing: when they refer to the dragon and its lair, they actually call it a dragon well, and actually state that in one of the story’s languages, the correct term is “lung ching.”
“Dragon well” is a type of Chinese green tea, also called “long jing” or “lung ching.” To celebrate, I drank some Dragonwell the morning after I finished the book. But that doesn’t seem like such a surprise, does it?