The desert writhed with poison life. (p. 1)
Honed and lustrous, Shattered Pillars's prose cuts with knife-thrust sharpness. Too visceral and too pointed to call polished, the experience of reading it alternates between delight and painful intensity. Shattered Pillars needs to be taken in stages, despite its cresting pace, to absorb the impact of its language.
This is not a novel for those who prefer their prose self-effacing and unobtrusive, but for those who glory in a well-turned phrase.
She glanced back, and the conquering wizard was gone, fallen into a proud woman with drawn cheeks and a sun squint beginning at the corners of her eyes.
"It is true," she allowed. "You have got a problem." Then, conversationally: "Empires are filthy things, you know."
He knew. He had grown up in the war camps and on the borders of one. And he knew, too, what happened when empires fell. "But are they so filthy as the lack of them?" (p. 44)
If I speak of the language first, it is because it hits me hardest. On a second reading, and on a third, relieved of the urgent tension to know what comes next, it is the language that endures, that provides a new appreciation of nuance. That shows me something fresh and clean, or something rich and strange.
Shattered Pillars is beautifully written. Bear's usual chiseled prose has matured to greater heights, but her attention to language hasn't in the least altered her ability to write fully fleshed characters who live and breathe from the page.
The second volume of Hugo-Award-winning author Elizabeth Bear's Central Asia-inspired Eternal Sky trilogy, this novel follows 2012's Range of Ghosts, which I loved with a passion that surpasses rational bounds. Range of Ghosts was the epic fantasy I had waited all my life—unknowing, but waiting—to come home to. It set a very high bar, and on first reading, Shattered Pillars failed to live up to my expectations for a sequel.
But this is a book that rewards rereading.
Re Temur, grandson of the dead Khagan of the steppe, rider of the bay mare Bansh, and Samarkar-la, once-princess of Rasa, wizard of Tsarepheth, and Temur's lover, have come to the city of Asitaneh, seat of the Uthman Caliphate and home of Temur's maternal grandfather, Ato Tesefahun. They seek the Caliph's recognition for Temur's claim to the Khaganate, and Ato Tesefahun's aid in rescuing Edene, the woman who carries Temur's child, from the Rahazeen cult of the Nameless. Who, unbeknownst to them, has already escaped, carrying a ring of power, to raise an army of ghulim in the desert of ancient, deadly Erem.
There are several strands of narrative in Shattered Pillars. The strands that bear the greatest emotional freight are that of Temur and Samarkar, and that of Hong-la and Tsering-la, wizards of Tsarepheth, upon whose shoulders falls the responsibility for finding a cure for the plague that has been devastating the city. Surgeons, scientists, wizards: at odds with the ruler of Tsarepheth and Rasa over what is necessary. It is not until refugees arrive from the steppe—Ata Ashra, seeking word of her son Temur, and Tsereg Altantseteg, matriarch of Edene's kin—some of whom are also infected, that they begin to make progress. Even then, it may be too late for Rasa's royal house, the rulers of Tsarepheth: Saadet and her twin Shahruz, on al-Sepehr's orders, have woken the volcano known as the Cold Fire that overlooks the city, and civil unrest has mounted to revolution.
But how these narrative strands all fit together, the final picture which they may present, is something that we must wait for the next volume to reveal.
Understated emotional beats and political intrigue join rooftop chases and burning cities. The lung demon plague is horrifying, disgusting, and a marvelously inventive use of a fantasy setting, as are the gradual changes of the world's sky, which reflects the political reality of nations below. The landscape and inhabitants of Erem, too, are vividly fantastical with beast-headed ghulim and deadly sunlight.
Much as I enjoyed the novel, it's not without its flaws. It is very much a middle book of a trilogy, and has a number of classic middle book snags. Its focus is more diffuse than its predecessor, its characters' growth less obvious. There is much here that feels as though it's setting up for an ultimate payoff in the final volume, rather than paying off emotional or thematically before the end of this particular book.
And I confess to some little confusion about what's happening with Edene. I suspect I'll have to wait until the end of the final volume of the trilogy, Steles of the Sky, before I can be sure I understand what's going on. As will, no doubt, most other readers. There is no way of knowing at present whose side she and her ghulim will ultimately benefit: Temur's, as she claims, or al-Sepehr's—or the older powers of Erem represented by the ring on her hand.
Whether Shattered Pillars is a stunning success or merely a qualified one is a judgement that must wait until Steles of the Sky provides a conclusion to the story. In the meanwhile, it is a very shiny middle book, and one that's prompted me to reread Range of Ghosts again while I wait for the final volume.