Books: Elizabeth Bear’s Shattered Pillars

My copy of Elizabeth Bear’s Shattered Pillars arrived today from the Book Depo, and to celebrate its shiny, shiny cover, I thought I’d share a Review I Made Earlier, when I received an ARC. (I do not believe the persons to whom I submitted this review are going to use it, so I feel free sharing it here.)

Elizabeth Bear, Shattered Pillars. Tor, 2013.

Shattered Pillars is the second volume of Hugo-Award-winning author Elizabeth Bear’s Central Asia-inspired Eternal Sky trilogy, after 2012’s Range of Ghosts. My love for Range of Ghosts is passionate and exceeds all rational bounds. It’s possible that nothing could have lived up to my expectations for its sequel – so when I say Shattered Pillars is something of a disappointment, it falls short of a very high bar.

And there’s still plenty of awesome here.

Temur, grandson of the Khagan of the steppe, and Samarkar, wizard of Tsarepheth and once a princess, have come to the city of Asitaneh to seek aid in Temur’s quest to find and rescue Edene, the woman he promised to marry, from the Cult of the Nameless in the Uthman Caliphate. Unbeknownst to them, Edene has already left the Nameless’s fortress, carrying a ring of power and Temur’s child, to raise an army of ghulim in the desert of ancient, deadly Erem.

But the forces of darkness are still at work in the Uthman Caliphate, on the steppe, and in Samarkar’s home. A plague has struck in Tsarepheth, for the city’s magical defences have been compromised by the politics of its rulers. We see the depredations of the plague of demons – demons that infest the lungs, and hatch out fatally after weeks of suffering – through the eyes of Han, the wizard who takes point on trying to find a cure, who also works closely with arriving refugees from the steppe, people who have left the lands controlled by Temur’s usurping uncle. Meanwhile, on the steppe, a servant of the Cult of the Nameless has become close in the counsels of the usurper Khagan, and in Asitaneh and parts west, Temur and Samarkar, accompanied by the tiger-woman Hrahima and the silent monk Hsiung, run into trouble when the Nameless engage in a spot of regime change in the Uthman Caliphate, making life difficult for our heroes. Eventually Temur and our heroes discover Edene’s already done a runner from the Nameless cult’s impregnable fortress, and Temur feels the time is right to raise his banner as a claimant to the Khagan’s seat.

Shattered Pillars is beautifully written, with Bear’s usual clean, precise prose, and fully-fleshed characters. Understated emotional beats and political intrigue, rooftop chases and burning cities, occasional stunning turns of description. The lung demon plague is horrifying, disgusting, and a marvellously inventive use of a fantasy setting, as is the gradual changes of the world’s sky, and the descriptions of the landscape and inhabitants of Erem. As a book, I enjoyed it. But it’s very much a middle book of a trilogy, and has a number of classic middle book problems: more diffusion of focus, more confusion of characters, much that feels as though it’s setting up for an ultimate payoff in the final volume rather than paying off emotional or thematically before the end of this particular book. And I confess, I’m confused about what’s happening with Edene, and have been since the end of Range of Ghosts: Bear writes books that reward detailed attention and re-reading, and I suspect I’ll have to wait until the end of the final volume of the trilogy, Steles of the Sky, before I can be sure I understand what’s going on.

Shattered Pillars doesn’t quite live up to the awesome that was Range of Ghosts. That’d be hard, since Range of Ghosts hit what felt like every single one of my narrative kinks for epic fantasy and did it in new and intriguing ways. But despite its middle-book unevenness, it’s still a damn good novel, and I’m looking forward to the conclusion.

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