The Sea Thy Mistress

by Elizabeth Bear

Cover image

Series: Edda of Burdens #3
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: February 2011
ISBN: 0-7653-1884-9
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 334

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The Sea Thy Mistress is the third book in the Edda of Burdens series, but the second book (By the Mountain Bound) was a prequel to the first, telling the story of an earlier world and the betrayal that ended it. This one is a direct sequel to All the Windwracked Stars, a complex and idea-rich book that I read more than six years ago.

A challenging property of Bear's fiction is that it's short on explanation and doesn't hold your hand. This makes it lean, sharp, and effective if you're fully invested in it and can keep the context in your head. It becomes very hard to understand if you've mostly forgotten the plot of an earlier book. (Once again, I bemoan the death of the previous book synopsis in series fiction.) The Sea Thy Mistress is all about aftermath, loss, despair, unhealed wounds, old grudges, and complicated personal histories, and it relies very heavily on the reader being invested enough in the characters to care about all of those things. I wish I'd read this entire series closer together so that I could retain more of the state.

The start of this story was therefore somewhat frustrating, as I scrambled to rebuild my memory of the first book and piece together the large cast. Thankfully, most of the characters are easy to care about. Aethelred reliably brought a smile to my face, and the opening scene of him finding a baby on the sea shore is a great piece of writing. Selene is back; she was one of my favorite characters in the first book. And Bear pulls off something I didn't think she could: the Grey Wolf is also back, for the third book, and he actually won me over. I think he grew up a bit; there's at least less whining and angst, and more effective action. It probably also helped that less of the story was told from his perspective.

The Sea Thy Mistress is primarily the story of Cathoair and his son, Cathmar, and their encounter with a truly nasty threat: a goddess who has way more knowledge of how their world works than they do, and is out to destroy it. This review will necessarily be sketchy on details; most of them would partly spoil All the Windwracked Stars. (I suppose I'm spoiling it a bit anyway just by listing characters who are still around.)

Cathmar is... not too irritating. He's young and stupid, and the first half of the book is a bit painful as he plays into the hands of the plot with much less information than the reader has available. But I was okay with him by the end of the book. Cathoair is a more complicated matter. I suspect whether you like this book will depend mostly on whether you can find some sympathy for his personal angst and self-destructive behavior, or at least tolerate him long enough to get to the ending.

Quite a lot of this book consists of people behaving stupidly and horribly while those who love them stand by helplessly, unable to figure out how to break the cycle. If that sounds frustrating, you have the right impression. I really struggled with the first two-thirds of the book and started regretting reading it. But there is a payoff: one that's uncomfortable, raw, perilous, and sad, but also beautiful and honest and effective. Muire's role in this book may be minor, but it's very memorable. Despite the difficulties of the early book, I was very glad to have read it for the payoff.

I'm not sure whether to recommend this or not, but I think it's worth reading if you enjoyed All the Windwracked Stars. If you do read it, though, try to read the whole series in close proximity. You'll want to remember the details between books. I'm now somewhat tempted to go back and re-read the whole series to experience it in context.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2015-09-12

Last modified and spun 2015-09-13