Steles of the Sky

by Elizabeth Bear

Cover image

Series: Eternal Sky #3
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: April 2014
ISBN: 0-7653-2756-2
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 429

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Steles of the Sky is the third book of the Eternal Sky trilogy and a direct sequel to Shattered Pillars. You should not start here, and ideally you should read all three books close together. They form a single story, and Elizabeth Bear is somewhat notorious for not adding extra explanation to her novels.

By the end of Shattered Pillars, Bear was (mostly) finished adding new factions to this story. Temur is returning home to fight for his people and his clan. His allies are mostly in place, as are his enemies. The hissable villain has remained hissable and boring, but several of his allies are more ambiguous and therefore more interesting (and get considerably more page time). All that remains is to see how Bear will end the story, and what last-minute twists will be thrown in.

Well, that and getting the characters into the right positions, which occupies roughly the first half of the book and dragged a bit. There is an important and long-awaited reunion, Brother Hsiung gets his moment of focus, and the dowager empress gets some valuable character development, all of which did add to the story. But there's also a lot of plodding across the countryside. I also have no idea why the extended detour to Kyiv, began in Shattered Pillars and completed here, is even in this story. It tells us a few new scraps about Erem and its implications, but nothing vital. I felt like everything that happened there could have been done elsewhere or skipped entirely without much loss.

The rest of the book is build-up to the epic conclusion, which is, somewhat unsurprisingly, a giant battle. It was okay, as giant battles go, but it also felt a bit like a fireworks display. Bear makes sure all the guns on the mantle go off by the end of the series, but a lot of them go off at the same time. It robs the plot construction of some of its power.

There's nothing objectionable about this book. It's well-written, does what it sets out to do, brings the story to a relatively satisfying conclusion, provides some memorable set pieces, and is full of women making significant decisions that shape the plot. And yet, when I finished it, my reaction was "huh, okay" and then "oh, good, I can start another book now." Shattered Pillars won me over during the book. Steles of the Sky largely did not.

I think my biggest complaint is one I've had about Bear's world-building before. She hints at some fascinating ideas: curious dragons, skies that vary with the political power currently in control, evil ancient magic, humanoid tigers with their own beliefs and magical system independent from humans, and a sky with a sun so hot that it would burn everything. Over the course of the series, she intrigued me with these ideas and left me eagerly awaiting an explanation. That explanation never comes. The history is never filled in, the tiger society is still only hints, Erem remains a vast mystery, the dragons appear only fleetingly to hint at connections with Erem... and then the book ends.

I'm not sure whether Bear did explain some details and I wasn't paying close enough attention, or if she never intended detailed explanations. (Both are possible! Bear's books are often subtle.) But I wanted so much more. For me, half the fun of SFF world-building is the explanation. I love the hints and the mystery and the sense of lost knowledge and hidden depths... but then I want the characters to find the knowledge and plumb the depths, not just solve their immediate conflict.

This is as good of a book as the first two books of the series on its own merits, but I enjoyed it less because I was hoping for more revelations before the story ended. The characters are all fine, but only a few of them stood out. Hrahima stole every scene she was in, and I would happily read a whole trilogy about her tiger people. Edene came into her own and had some great moments, but they didn't come with the revelations about Erem that I was hungry for. The rest of the large cast is varied and well-written and features a refreshing number of older women, and it wouldn't surprise me to hear that other readers had favorite characters who carried the series for them. But for me the characters weren't compelling enough to overcome my disappointment in the lack of world-building revelations.

The series sadly didn't deliver the payoff that I was looking for, and I can't recommend it given the wealth of excellent fantasy being written today. But if you like Bear's understated writing style and don't need as much world-building payoff as I do, it may still be worth considering.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-05-29

Last modified and spun 2022-05-30