Monday, 28 April 2014

A pleasing romp through a realm of Asian gods in The Eternal Sky

From The Week of April 20th, 2014

Living, as we do, in a world shaped by science and empowered by technology, it is difficult to imagine how society would function without them. Religion would certainly step out from its forced confinement backstage to reclaim its civil authority, but religion is only the dogmatized distillation of a power that runs far deeper, that may well have been with us longer than any other human concept. Mythology... For in a world without systems of logic and procedure, when truthseeking is reduced to hunches and hubris, mythology must be the genesis of both society and its customs, forged by the will of visionaries into a sword of belief that everyone can carry. What would it be like to live in such a world, where such concepts, such gods, are real, their powers shaping the lives of millions? Elizabeth Bear imagines in this engaging and bloody trilogy.

In a world of empires and Jin, warriors of the step and wizards of the tower, a ruthless conspiracy is afoot to bring chaos and war to the known realms. Having worked its corrupting will into the tribalism of the Plains and the politics of the imperial court, it has cleverly warped the existing bonds of family and law that have kept the realms relatively stable, manipulating them until brother besets brother and clan besets clan in a bid for discord and despair that it is uniquely positioned to capitalize on.

Standing in the way of this ruthless powergrab are two unlikely allies. Temur is a warrior of the step, grandson of the great khan who was left for dead on a battlefield that has robbed him of clan and future. Samarkar is a princess, sister to the reigning Emperor who has made a singular sacrifice to attain the powers of a wizard. He is powerless and alone. She is exiled and friendless, but as the conspiracy unfolds, and the land is riven by plague and infighting, they are thrust together by circumstance to try to right a wrong and discover just what is tearing their worlds apart. Joined by friends with their own pasts, their destinies will be written in blood across a changing sky, reconfiguring a world that has tried, and failed, to kill them many times over.

Imaginative fantasy fiction from an author of many literary disciplines, the Eternal Sky is an entertaining romp through a world drenched in myths and consequences. Eschewing the typical proto-European backdrop that characterizes so much of the genre, Ms. Bear has drawn from a more eastern inspiration, chiefly, the customs and politics of Mongolian Asia, when the Khans were at the height of their power. But the author does not simply flirt with this fascinating time in Asian history when the Mongol nations violently clashed with dynastic China and caliphate Islam, briefly creating a vast united empire that was ruled from horseback, she delves deeply into the stories and the traditions of these great powers and conjures from them monsters and mayhem, magic and malignancies that not only buffet her heroes, but drape the world of The Eternal Sky in the cloak of familiarity and authenticity.

Despite its pleasingly atypical setting, The Eternal Sky could have been just another trilogy, the churning out of familiar tropes for the entertainment of audiences wishing to gorge themselves on such familiar fare. But Ms. Bear, who has frequently exhibited a fondness for cutting against the usual grain, has generated a series of winning characters that further set her chronicle apart. Temur is a fearsome warrior who, despite the cruelties he's endures, maintains a core of decency that makes him eminently relatable despite his tribal upbringing. Samarkar is a newly minted mage who, despite her noble blood and her physical charms, rejects the narrowness of a life proscribed to her class and her gender and, instead, becomes a person not afraid to get her hands dirty in a world that desperately needs her. Even Hrahima, the half-woman half-tigress who accompanies them, is animated beyond the typical nonsense of such fantasy breeds to become a fearsome creature with whom the reader can sympathize.

These are not easy accomplishments. That they are so effortlessly achieved is both a credit to the author and a boon to the reader.

However, while the setting and the characters are winners here, the plots leave something to be desired. Ms. Bear has opted for the standard approach of the quest that binds together the brave band of heroes which, without twists, feels tired unto exhaustion. This feeling is not at all abated by repetitive surprise attacks upon the band which, in both style and substance, are tiresomely reminiscent of adventure games spanning the decades. But while these are flaws that hobble the work to some degree, they are in no way fatal blows upon what is otherwise delightful work.

A pleasing creation that gives us a taste of worlds we rarely see and demons we rarely fight... Well worth the time and money... (4/5 Stars)

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