Review copy provided by Tor Books. Also the author is a personal friend, which I sometimes completely forget to say, as I forgot to say it about Katherine Addison, which does not mean I like her any less or am any less willing to make her dinner or am trying to put one over on people in order to get them to buy The Goblin Emperor. (Which you should do! But not because Addison is my friend; I have plenty of friends whose books I don’t like half so well as The Goblin Emperor. But this is not a post about one of them. Ahem. Anyway.)
I hate total orderings. Total orderings give me hives. There is no particular reason one has to say that one thing is the very best thing and another is the second best and on down the list when they have diverse good points, and there will be reasons to recommend one book to one person and another to another.
That being said. Now that the Eternal Sky series is finished, I feel that it is a very strong contender for Bear’s best work to date, even over the one that has my heart so transparently that it got dedicated to me before I’d even read it. (That would be By the Mountain Bound, and if you’ve read the Edda of Burdens, you’re probably going, yeah, that’s pretty Mrissable. And yeah, it is. But these books, people. These books.) It’s a very high contender for “thing to recommend if someone says ‘Elizabeth Bear, I’ve never read her, what should I read,'” unless there’s a darn good reason to go another way, such as their passionate love for generation ships or the Norse, and even maybe then. The things she’s doing are strong and interesting and complicated, and Steles of the Sky is very much a book of sticking the landing.
And what a complex landing it is to stick. I feel that what Bear deserves for this–what I would have wanted in order to try to get it right myself–is a tiny set of carven stone pieces in jade and tiger’s eye and all the materials, to be the dragon and the bear men (BEAR MEN SHE GAVE ME BEAR MEN IN A BLIZZARD SHE DIDN’T EVEN HAVE TO) and the horses, each of the horses and the herd, and the ghulim and all. I am amazed that she managed to make it all work without an entire layout of them, and I think she deserves them all to play with and pet, just for making it all work.
Here is what you will notice, if you pay attention to the rest of the series so far: you will notice that not everyone gets to win. And that even the people who get to win…you will probably start to think as you think about what there is in play…probably do not get to do so without a price.
There are some pretty high prices in this book. I’m finding it hard to talk about it without spoilers, but…yes. Not without cost, this one.
Some series are books that only incidentally go together–they have the same characters and setting, but the events are only loosely linked. This is not one of them. While there are ample reminders of who is who and what is what if you haven’t reread Range of Ghosts as a refresher before picking up Steles, the weight of everything from the horses’ colors to Hsiung’s choices will be much stronger with the weight of the previous two before it. But the thing is complete now; if you’re a reader who only wants to read stories that are complete, now’s your time. Highly recommended.