Review: Steles of the Sky, by Elizabeth Bear

Russ Allbery eagle at
Sun May 29 20:07:29 PDT 2022

Steles of the Sky
by Elizabeth Bear

Series:    Eternal Sky #3
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: April 2014
ISBN:      0-7653-2756-2
Format:    Hardcover
Pages:     429

Steles of the Sky is the third book of the Eternal Sky trilogy and a
direct sequel to Shattered Pillars. You should not start here, and
ideally you should read all three books close together. They form a
single story, and Elizabeth Bear is somewhat notorious for not adding
extra explanation to her novels.

By the end of Shattered Pillars, Bear was (mostly) finished adding new
factions to this story. Temur is returning home to fight for his people
and his clan. His allies are mostly in place, as are his enemies. The
hissable villain has remained hissable and boring, but several of his
allies are more ambiguous and therefore more interesting (and get
considerably more page time). All that remains is to see how Bear will
end the story, and what last-minute twists will be thrown in.

Well, that and getting the characters into the right positions, which
occupies roughly the first half of the book and dragged a bit. There is
an important and long-awaited reunion, Brother Hsiung gets his moment
of focus, and the dowager empress gets some valuable character
development, all of which did add to the story. But there's also a lot
of plodding across the countryside. I also have no idea why the
extended detour to Kyiv, began in Shattered Pillars and completed here,
is even in this story. It tells us a few new scraps about Erem and its
implications, but nothing vital. I felt like everything that happened
there could have been done elsewhere or skipped entirely without much

The rest of the book is build-up to the epic conclusion, which is,
somewhat unsurprisingly, a giant battle. It was okay, as giant battles
go, but it also felt a bit like a fireworks display. Bear makes sure
all the guns on the mantle go off by the end of the series, but a lot
of them go off at the same time. It robs the plot construction of some
of its power.

There's nothing objectionable about this book. It's well-written, does
what it sets out to do, brings the story to a relatively satisfying
conclusion, provides some memorable set pieces, and is full of women
making significant decisions that shape the plot. And yet, when I
finished it, my reaction was "huh, okay" and then "oh, good, I can
start another book now." Shattered Pillars won me over during the book.
Steles of the Sky largely did not.

I think my biggest complaint is one I've had about Bear's
world-building before. She hints at some fascinating ideas: curious
dragons, skies that vary with the political power currently in control,
evil ancient magic, humanoid tigers with their own beliefs and magical
system independent from humans, and a sky with a sun so hot that it
would burn everything. Over the course of the series, she intrigued me
with these ideas and left me eagerly awaiting an explanation. That
explanation never comes. The history is never filled in, the tiger
society is still only hints, Erem remains a vast mystery, the dragons
appear only fleetingly to hint at connections with Erem... and then the
book ends.

I'm not sure whether Bear did explain some details and I wasn't paying
close enough attention, or if she never intended detailed explanations.
(Both are possible! Bear's books are often subtle.) But I wanted so
much more. For me, half the fun of SFF world-building is the
explanation. I love the hints and the mystery and the sense of lost
knowledge and hidden depths... but then I want the characters to find
the knowledge and plumb the depths, not just solve their immediate

This is as good of a book as the first two books of the series on its
own merits, but I enjoyed it less because I was hoping for more
revelations before the story ended. The characters are all fine, but
only a few of them stood out. Hrahima stole every scene she was in, and
I would happily read a whole trilogy about her tiger people. Edene came
into her own and had some great moments, but they didn't come with the
revelations about Erem that I was hungry for. The rest of the large
cast is varied and well-written and features a refreshing number of
older women, and it wouldn't surprise me to hear that other readers had
favorite characters who carried the series for them. But for me the
characters weren't compelling enough to overcome my disappointment in
the lack of world-building revelations.

The series sadly didn't deliver the payoff that I was looking for, and
I can't recommend it given the wealth of excellent fantasy being
written today. But if you like Bear's understated writing style and
don't need as much world-building payoff as I do, it may still be worth

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-05-29


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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