From time to time, the fantasy genre can grow stale. Like a rock gathering moss, forward moment is required to shake off that taste of similarity it can acquire. Sword and sorcery needs an infusion of spice occasionally, to cleanse the pallet. Elizabeth Bear's Eternal Sky Trilogy eschews the normally depicted, European inspired setting for a middle and far east flavored environment. Steeped deeply in the traditions of several prominent ancient cultures, Bear crafts am intricately layered world, which allows the complex political machinations to unfold with all due depth of impact. However because of this new readers to the series need be warned: if you're coming into Shattered Pillars without having first read Range of Ghosts, you will spend a lot of pages and processing power trying to suss out exactly what is happening. Image if you were first exposed to Star Wars with The Empire Strikes Back after the Battle of Hoth, and you'll have an idea of the scope of confusion. Author Bear can't be faulted for jumping right into the machinations of her setting, since she spent the near entirety of Range of Ghosts world building, but an index of characters and their relationships would have offered a helping hand for new readers looking to dive right in.
Once you climb over that slightly daunting wall though, the rich mix of cultures and societies at cross purposes will keep your seats and tray tables locked in their upright positions as the pages turn in rapid succession. Shattered Pillars follows a number of characters who adventured together in Range of Ghosts, but where split at the end of the latter book. They're composed much like a far east Dungeons and Dragons party with Hong-La, a wizard physician (cleric) fighting a demonic plague; Brother Hsiung, a partially blind monk who's taken a vow of silence; Samarkar, once princess and also a wizard Tsarepheth but with far more offensive based abilities; her lover Temur, the rightful Khan (ruler) of his Mongolian inspired people, on the run after treachery (ranger like in his abilities); and Hrahima, a Ch-tse (cat people) warrior. Despite being separated, they battle the shadowy forces of the necromancer style sorcerer, al-Sepehr and his assassin adopted daughter. He wages a secret war of political conquest through cat's paws and brilliant maneuvering.
The narrative flows through a great number of characters, including all of those listed above and a number more, a necessary structural choice when so many nuanced schemes are being enacted simultaneously to one another. This shifting view point also assists in fleshing out the various alien cultures these characters exist in and are forced to adjust to. Enjoyably, each of these locations have their own unique (real world inspired) set of cultural customs. Some readers may find the cultural doctrine of women always wearing veils and never being directly looked upon as uncomfortable or peculiar, but so too do our protagonists, who are themselves outsiders to these customs. The shared experience works to engender them to us, as all shared experiences tend to.
A great deal of the action in Shattered Pillars is cultural, the conflict internal. This is not to say there is no action, but it's more heavily loaded into the second half of the adventure. When it does happen, battle is brutal and grisly, stripping the heroes of the convenient plot armor that hangs over many adventure series, cheapening the peril of mortal danger. Bear has a deeply descriptive authoritative voice, evocatively giving breadth and depth to this unique world and it's varied locales. Where she takes a misstep is in intricately detailing the minutia of child birth. These repulsively gruesome sequences go on at great length and include so much information as to roil the stomach. They are unnecessary additions, which serve no plot purposes and only work to unnerve the audience, breaking the pace and rhythm of an otherwise excellent adventure.
Shattered Pillars is a deep, layered work, which only slightly suffers from middle movie syndrome. The adventure and intrigue more than makes up for the work new reads to the series would have to invest in coming to grips with the setting. Still, I would highly recommend starting with Range of Ghosts, then continuing to Shattered Pillars. This is a deep, complex fantasy offering that's well worth your time. Both books are available from Tor publishing; Shattered Pillars just hit the market last week on March 19th in hardback.
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Saturday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famousColonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.