Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Shattered Pillars Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Series: Eternal Sky Book Two
Pages: 336

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(Contains spoilers for Range of Ghosts).

Shattered Pillars is a more fully realized novel than its predecessor. The prose is consistently solid in this book, where as the last one it seem to jump from brilliant to questionable (at certain points), but the writing feels a lot more balanced.  Magic is a lot more bountiful and it’s handled exceptionally well. The worldbuilding continues to be amongst the best found in high fantasy. The pacing, at least for the first half is perfect, but the second half starts to feel a little rushed. Although there are some smaller issues, the book ultimately ends up working.

To recap quickly, the Wizard Samarkar and Temur are now at Asitaneh where they wish to seek the aid of Temur’s powerful grandfather Ato Tesefahun in their quest to find Temur’s lover Edene. In the Rasan Empire a demonic plague is spreading, one that’s not only destroying lives, but may see the Empire plunged into Civil War.  After escaping the Rock, Edene continues following the magical scorpions, while hoping to seek out Temur and find safety for her unborn child.  As instability rocks the world, the sorcerer al-Sepehr’s designs to bring the world under the Scholar God begin to come to fruition.

While Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky Trilogy may fall under the high fantasy moniker, and subsequently be a series that’s thrown in there with the “Tolkien imitators,” Bear manages to shake things up enough so that it never feels like a cheap copy cat. Subsequently there are a lot of plot points that start like something you’ve seen in other fantasy series’, but Bear ends up taking them in a different direction.

In Lord of the Rings Aragorn must rise and become the king he was destined to be. He’s supported by an elven princess, Arwen, that will also be an important leader to her people. In Shattered Pillars Temur must rise and become the king he was destined to be.  He’s supported by the Once-Princess Samarkar who’s had to give up the “Princess” title for political reasons and so she could become a wizard. A subtle difference in the plot, but it opens a whole new world of possibilities.

Again in The Wheel of Time Rand al’ Thor falls in love with three different women.  Conveniently all three of the women Rand falls in love with all love each other so they become one happy polygamous family.  In Shattered Pillars Temur falls in love with Edene and then falls in love with Samarkar. With the time Temur spends with Edene and later Samarkar, and based off the romantic needs of all three of these characters this threesome looks like it’s heading to disaster once Edene and Samarkar finally meet.  While some people may be alright with open relationships, Bear seems to be taking a more realistic look at the idea. Samarkar and Edene’s eventual collision looks to be one of the most anticipatory moments in the series.

In Range of Ghosts there were a lot of moments where we’d see Samarkar practicing magical technique, but there was very little magic to be had until the end.  That changes in this book, and Bear flushes out a magic system that’s mostly vague, but there are rules tossed in here in there.  One of my favorites is magic can’t create or destroy life. That’s not to say people can’t by killed by magic, as Samarkar at one point kills something by evaporating all of the water out of the creature’s body.  The point here is a rule like this allows for a structured magic system to exist, and it forces some creativity into how it’s used by the author.

Shattered Pillars also shifts its focus from Temur to Samarkar.  She takes a much stronger leadership oriented position in this book – saving lives, plotting stratagems, and unleashing torrents of magic.  Temur fades to the background, but finishes the story strongly. The demonic plague in Tsarepheth and Edene’s trance like following of the magical scorpions are two subplots that add to the tension and mythical atmosphere.

The pacing in the first half is excellent, it lets readers get re-accustomed to the world, and it lets the characters get organically flushed out more. The second half starts to rush.  At one point the characters cover 50 days of traveling in the span of a paragraph.  It feels like things are going at a steady pace and then BOOM … this book needs to end. Speaking of the ending – and I’m being vague here to avoid spoilers – it reminds me a lot of the ending to one of the major plot threads in Joe Abercrombie’s Before They Are Hanged (First Law Trilogy Book Two). While Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy is known for its nihilistic plot, Bear is anything but a nihilist.  Emotionally the ending left me with some mixed feelings.  I liked it, and there’s certainly enough there to keep me reading, and I would definitely still recommend book, but I was expecting more.

Score: 8.8

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