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.

Linky brings tidings of tragedy and cheer

Elizabeth Bear on “I Love A Good Tragedy As Much As The Next Guy”:

I mean, we’ve all been fifteen and in love with death. Yours truly was a Goth before that was a thing; we were still adjectives back in my day, not even having graduated yet to nouns. That nihilistic view of the world is essentially a juvenile, sociopathic, self-justifying fetish, and most of us eventually grow out of it. We grow into a little responsibility, at least—the understanding that the only thing likely to make the world a more endurable place for the bulk of humanity is collective action. Even when we’re spending a significant amount of time selfishly looking out for number one.

Joe Abercrombie follows up his “Value of Grit” post with “Gritty Washback”:

Doubtless gritty fantasy (and I’d include my own) has not always covered itself in glory in its treatment of race and gender. Though I don’t see any reason why grit can’t be a powerful tool to investigate those issues, if wielded with skill, thought and responsibility (not by me, in other words).

Elizabeth Bear, again, with “I pity the fool”:

Every damned time the topic of diversity in SFF comes up, somebody says something about “Well, if the story demands that the character be queer/disabled/black/trans/female/postcolonial/feminist, that’s one thing. But if you’re just putting it in to be politically correct***, then you’re bound by ideology, and that’s bad art.”

… …
… … …

…because able Western white cis het male is the default. Because the viewpoint character being an able Western white cis het male totally doesn’t inform the narrative, and has no influence in the way the world is presented, because that’s the only viewpoint that really exists, and the rest of us are all flavor text.

Sofia Samatar interviews Nalo Hopkinson at Strange Horizons.

Also at Strange Horizons, the results of the 2012 Readers’ Poll. Very personally flattering, and congratulations to everyone else who made the lists.

@fidelioscabinet has provided a transcript of a Twitter conversation about anthropology in SFF between Rose Lemberg, Kate Elliott, me, and a couple of others.

Linky would like you to believe in justice and fairies

First, we have two posts on Snow White and The Huntsman: Ana Mardoll with Snow White and Trust

What I am instead going to talk about today is how tired I am of movie scenes where women apologize for not trusting every potentially damaging secret and/or minute corner of their heart to strange men they have no reason whatsoever to trust. Because I so tired of this trope.

– and, via the said Ana Mardoll, Culturally Disoriented from last year on Dear Snow White and The Huntman: Kissing: You’re Doing It Wrong

Which is when I realized that the technically-lesbian kiss was also the only consensual kiss in the movie. And that while this consensual kiss led to Snow White’s demise, the non-consensual kiss imposed on Snow by the Huntsman… ends up saving her life.

Elizabeth Bear is brilliant about not policing other women’s clothing:

So I read some feminist fitness blogs, like you do. And one of them recently linked to a couple of posts that I’m not going to link to, but the gist of which was that women should not wear “running skirts,” or “fitness skirts,”* because it’s unfeminist to try to look cute when you work out. That women wearing skirts to work out “creates a sexist atmosphere.”

That we can’t take ourselves seriously as athletes if we’re wearing sparkly ruffles. And that it’s okay to mock women who wear them.

To which all I have to say is, “Fuck you, ladies.”

Alyssa Rosenberg on Think Progress on the VIDA report.

Inequality By Interior Design on the social construction of childhood. Now including extra baby cage!