Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear. ★★★1/2
Steles of the Sky is the final book in the epic fantasy series the Eternal Sky, which starts with Range of Ghosts. Temur is raising his banner as Great Khan and gathering allies against the plot to raise an ancient evil.
Thankfully, the synopsis for Steles of the Sky differed from the formula set out by the last two books. On the other hand, I don’t think my problems with the last book were just mid series slump. I think this entire trilogy suffers from poor plotting and pacing.
While the end of the book did bring everyone together for the expected Final Battle, the beginning of the book maintained the pattern of people traveling from point A to point B that I’d complained about with the previous books. The plot feels very standard and completely unoriginal, and the only villain to be at all interesting is Saadat. There’s many elements I liked about the trilogy, but with such a weak plot line and poor pacing, it really suffered.
Yet there are many elements I enjoyed. The foremost is the sheer beauty of the Eternal Skies. Bear has imbued her setting with grandeur, awe, and wonder all brought to life by her magnificent prose. I love how she takes her inspiration from Asian cultures instead of European and how the magic fits so deeply into the landscape, with the skies that change with the fate of empires.
The other high point of the series is the inclusion of multiple important women, of many different sorts. I know both Hrahima, the tigeress warrior, and Samarkar, a wizard of the Citadel, will stick with me for a long time. The trilogy overall had a number of mother queens ruling as regents, and I wonder if it’s either inspired by history or has some deeper thematic meaning. I’d probably need to reread to say more on the subject, but what I noticed this first time around was interesting.
I didn’t find the ending completely satisfying, as it seemed like there were a lot of unresolved plot threads (what was up with that Lady Dio subplot for instance?). I was more emotional about it than I expected, which led me to realize just how much I’d gotten attached to some of the characters.
Other than its Central Asian setting, the Eternal Skies trilogy is very much a traditional, non-grimdark epic fantasy story. It’s not a trilogy I would reread or strongly recommend, but if nothing else I don’t regret reading it because of the beautiful world building and prominent female characters.