Eternal Sky Trilogy, Elizabeth Bear

My main present this Christmas was a Kindle – I’ve finally entered the 21st Century 😉 And as part of the present I got three new ebooks to start me off, I chose Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy which I’ve had on my to-buy list for a while. The three books are Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars and Steles of the Sky and they are fantasy, set in a world that is not our own with a strong Asian flavour.

The series opens in the aftermath of a battle. Temur, who is one of the protagonists of the story, is one of the defeated side and lucky to be alive – surviving mostly because he looked dead already. The battle was part of a civil war: Temur’s people are very Mongol-like and this is a succession war that breaks out after the Khagan has died between his successors (much like after Genghis Khan’s death in the real world). Temur is now one of the few claimants left alive. At first he’s not concerned with that, he joins with some of the refugees and seems almost content to settle into anonymity. But it becomes clear that there is more going on than first meets the eye. Edene, the girl Temur is falling in love with, is stolen away from the refugee camp by blood ghosts called up from the dead of the battle by a sorcerer allied with the other side of the civil war. He sets off to rescue her and along the way discovers the sorcerer’s schemes will have a wider impact than just on his own family and his own country, and resolves to stop him.

And so far, that sounds very bog standard epic fantasy – chosen one (male) goes off to rescue girl, take back throne and stop the evil sorcerer. But that’s really not what this series is like. For starters, it’s much more of an ensemble cast than the paragraph above makes it sound and a lot of the ensemble are women. For instance rescuing Edene might be Temur’s initial motivation to set off – but Edene isn’t just a pretty damsel in distress who waits in the fortress for Temur’s arrival. She takes action herself to escape, and she’s very definitely the hero of her own story – even tho at first she is playing into the antagonist’s schemes. Another member of the cast is Hrahima, a female Cho-tse – a sentient tiger (which is a bit like calling a human a sentient monkey). The antagonist is also not just one evil man with minions although I suspect he’d like to think he is – but the “minions” are people who again are the heroes of their own stories.

The other primary protagonist (alongside Temur & Edene) is the wizard Samarkar – she is a Once-Princess of Rasa who has chosen to become part of an order of wizards where the price for power is sterilisation. For men this is a relatively easy operation, but for women it’s at the limits of the medical technology of the day – so we first meet Samarkar as she is discovering she will live and recover from the operation. And it’s only after you pay the price that you discover if you will gain power – one of the other supporting cast is a wizard who never gained her power (but nonetheless she’s still respected as one of the best theoreticians of the order). She meets (and rescues) Temur near the beginning of his journey to find Edene. The wizards are very curious about the world in a scientific way – knowledge is power, knowing how things work lets you figure out how to manipulate them. When Temur swears a blood-vow Samarkar realises no-one has recorded the progress of one of these through from the very start, and so she decides to travel with Temur. Quickly she moves to be a participant rather than merely an observer, as she & Temur become first friends and then more.

As I said at the beginning of this review this is Asian flavoured fantasy. By that I mean it uses the cultures and mythology of various parts of Asia as the underpinnings of the story in the same way that a lot of fantasy uses a sort of medieval European “lords, ladies, castles, knights, damsels” bedrock as its foundation. But it’s not an indistinct mishmash of pseudo-Asian culture – there are several countries in the world and they have distinct cultures which are recognisably riffing off distinct cultures in our world. For instance as I’ve already mentioned Temur’s people are akin to the Mongols – I recognised a China analogue (of the right era) and a very obvious analogue of the Islamic Caliphate (in the same way that pseudo-Euro fantasy often has a religion that is Christianity-in-all-but-name here we have an Islam). I think the Rasa might be Tibetan analogues but I don’t know enough about Tibet’s history to be sure.

The world, however, is not just a thinly veiled version of our own. It’s not just that magic works, the sky is also very different. What sky you see reflects the ruler of the land you’re in. When a regime changes so does the sky, when you cross a country’s borders the sky changes, Although there are mentions of this being over-ruled sometime by the ideology of the people (rather than their ruler) if it’s deep-seated enough. It’s not necessarily just a change in colour or something petty like that – the sun might rise in a different direction, or be much much brighter. And the night sky will also change. In the land ruled by the Khagan of Temur’s people you see a moon for every potential heir to the throne – as each is born a new moon is also born. As any of them die then their moon dies with them. Which means in the first part of the first book Temur is able to track the progress of the civil war even after he’s left for dead on the battlefield – by counting moons. And obviously so can the other side …

I’ve often read defences of the lack of women with agency in epic fantasy that boil down to “well, it’s a medieval world, women aren’t able to do anything in that sort of society”. And this series demonstrates very well just how much bollocks that is. The vast majority of the societies in the world of the Eternal Sky are patriarchal and the roles women are permitted to fulfil are limited and mostly decorative. In theory. But in practice the women in this story drive a lot of the plot along whether they act openly in their own interests or more indirectly. Even the slave-poetess who is literally inside a box for large chunks of the time she’s present in the story is not just sitting there waiting to be done to, she’s doing.

A criticism I’d make is that the antagonists are from the Islamic analogue culture, and that doesn’t sit well with me. I think I can see why it ended up like that – the whole set up is a sort of mirror of the standard Euro-fantasy with the Asian cultures occupying the role that Western cultures normally do. There’s even mentions in passing of exotic white skinned people from the West in the same way one might find mentions of exotic people from the East. And if you reflect around the centre then the Caliphate will end up playing the same role in both cases. I just don’t like that it plays into the current political demonisation of the Muslim world.

I thoroughly recommend the books (other than that one criticism) – I’ve talked about them all at once because I read them back to back and finished all three within four days, they were very engrossing 🙂 I think they’ll also reward re-reading, and there’s a lot of stuff I didn’t mention in this review about themes & patterns that might well be even clearer on a re-read.