Shattered Pillars, by Elizabeth Bear

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Publication date – March 19, 2013

Summary: The Shattered Pillars is the second book of Bear’s The Eternal Sky trilogy and the sequel to Range of Ghosts. Set in a world drawn from our own great Asian Steppes, this saga of magic, politics and war sets Re-Temur, the exiled heir to the great Khagan and his friend Sarmarkar, a Wizard of Tsarepheth, against dark forces determined to conquer all the great Empires along the Celedon Road.

Elizabeth Bear is an astonishing writer, whose prose draws you into strange and wonderful worlds, and makes you care deeply about the people and the stories she tells. The world of The Eternal Sky is broadly and deeply created—her award-nominated novella, “Bone and Jewel Creatures” is also set there.

Thoughts: Shattered Pillars picks up the story very shortly after the end of Range of Ghosts, with Temur still intent on finding and rescuing Edene and overthrowing his uncle, Samarkar still intent on helping him and also uncovering what is occurring with the cult of the Scholar God and al-Sepehr, and Hsiung and Hrahima coming along for reasons of their own. Where character development for most of the characters was slim in Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars takes the time to flesh them out, and to give many of them a bigger role within the story. Especially Edene. Previously, she was mostly Temur’s romantic interest who had been kidnapped, a “princess in another castle,” as it were, and the most development she got was in being a pawn in al-Sepehr’s scheme. She wasn’t exactly passive, but she was a character to whom things happened, rather than a character who actively affected things occurring around her. Shattered Pillars changes that a lot, giving her a storyline of her own as she escapes her confines with a magical ring and ends up becoming queen of the ghul.

Beyond that, a plague has come to the wizard city of Tsarepeth, a plague that involves demons gestating within human hosts, sickening and killing them as the demon babies grow. Which is exactly as horrifying as it sounds. The wizards, masters of science and the arcane, aren’t precisely helpless to stop it, but their efforts are experimental and yield little success.

Something that continues to fascinate me in this series is the very concrete way that shifting political lines affects the world. Who rules over an area doesn’t just affect policies or rights, but the very appearance of the sky above them. The shade of blue, how high it appears, all of it is affected by who controls a place, the borders of territory made very obvious because the sky changes when you step out of one region and into another. Normally I like it when the fantastical elements of a story have some scientific cohesion, rules that are followed and are easily understood. “Magic works by manipulating energy flows,” “deities only give power to their worshipers,” that sort of thing. The sky changing depending on shifting political lines doesn’t follow that sort of logic, so you’d think it would bother me, because there’s no science to it that I can grasp. And yet, it doesn’t. I think that’s because the changing-sky aspect of this world feels very mythical, and so do many of the events within the story itself, so it feels like they all go together even if certain aspects don’t make logical sense.

Shifting politics affect more than merely the sky under which people live. I was particularly interested in the plague storyline, and the attempts of the wizards to figure out the cause. So far as they knew, something like a demon infestation could not come within the walls of the city, as the city itself was warded against such things. They should have been safe. But the cause was revealed to be someone within the royal family being tricked into unknowingly giving permission for it to happen, negating the effect of the wards and bringing down a plague upon the populace. Not by saying, “Yes, stranger I’ve never met before, come in and do whatever you please,” but by actively working against the system. People from the Steppes, Temur’s people, are experiencing the same plague due to the political instability caused by Temur’s uncle coup. The health and status of a region’s politics has such far-reaching consequences that can be easily felt by citizens.

It’s easy to think that this is the author’s way of saying, “Don’t buck the status quo.” But it doesn’t read that way to me. To me, it seems more like, “If it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it. If it works, don’t change it just for the sake of changing it.” Stability brought safety. Instability, acting against what has been established purely for personal gain, is what brought the problems, and it’s the people who bear the brunt of their leader’s actions. The situation on the Steppes adds weight to this. Qori Buqa has taken over despite not being heir, not being in the line of succession. If it was merely going along with the status quo that ensured a region’s health and prosperity, then all people would have to do would be nothing at all. Accept that they have a new ruler. After all, the Khaganate absorbed other places into their ruling over generations, gave places a new ruler whether they liked it or not brought people under a new sky, so there should be no problem with an internal takeover. And yet, there is. Because Qori Buqa took something that was not his, sought power for no reason but that he wanted power, and that opened the door to malign influence.

Bear isn’t saying, “Just accept things as they are and everything will be fine.” She’s saying, “Sometimes change happens, but there are limits, and when selfishness and greed drive that change, it invites corruption.”

I really enjoyed the story progression and the development from the previous novel to this one. The greater number of character perspectives added a lot of depth, and allowed readers to see more of the increasingly complex story as it unfolds. Edene’s increase in agency and relevance was great to see, since her passive role was something that did bother me somewhat about Range of Ghosts. It utterly subverts Second Book Syndrome by being far more complex and still keeping the story going at a steady pace. The compelling mix of cultures and mythologies keeps the content fresh and original while avoiding falling into the trap of exoticism. Though people who didn’t enjoy Range of Ghosts are probably unlikely to pick up Shattered Pillars, this book does address many of the concerns I saw regarding the first book, and it might have redeemed the series in the eyes of people who were a bit ambivalent at first.

For my part, I am very invested in this trilogy, and my main regret right now is that my local library doesn’t have a copy of the third book so that I can start reading it right away. Rest assured, though, once I do manage to find a copy, I’ll be turning its pages without delay.

One comment on “Shattered Pillars, by Elizabeth Bear

  1. Pingback: March 2020 in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

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