Monday, July 29, 2013

Microreview [book]: Shattered Pillars by Elizabeth Bear

Bear, Elizabeth. Shattered Pillars [Tor, 2013]

The Meat

Middle chapters in serialized trilogies pose unique problems. After all, there's no real beginning or ending--just a whole lot of middle. For the most part, things go badly and our heroes struggle to piece together the tools with which they'll eventually confront whatever (or whoever) torments them. It is incumbent upon writers, then, to balance tension and hope for resolution. When it works, you get something like The Empire Strikes Back or A Clash of Kings. When it doesn't, you get Attack of the Clones or A Feast for Crows/A Dance with Dragons.

The good news is that Shattered Pillars isn't the latter half of that equation, and in fact it's very good--particularly for a bridging chapter. It's elegantly written, well-paced and rich enough to beg for a second read-through. But it does suffer from some nagging issues that keep it from soaring to Empire or Clash of Kings heights. That said, it's a testament to how good this series is that these things never feel like more than minor annoyances.

!WARNING: Mild Spoilers Ahead!*

Action begins with Re Temur, once-princess and wizard Samakar and their companions in the capital of the Uthman (alt-Islamic) Caliphate. They are eagerly awaiting the Caliph's audience, where they will attempt to make an ally of him against al-Sepehr, his Nameless cult of assassins and allies across the known world, who conspire to resurrect the dread Carrion-King and plunge the world into darkness. Meanwhile, Edene escapes the Rahazeen fortress Ala-Din and finds herself in a land of ghouls, while a strange plague emerges in Samarkar's homeland Rasa.

Most of Shattered Pillars comes form the perspective of its female characters--Samarkar, Edene, the Rasan wizard Tsering-la, Cho-tse warrior woman Hrahima and the Nameless assassin Saadet. Bear's treatment of the female subject stands out as among the best in fantasy--not only are there strong women characters, but different sources of their strength (something Aidan Moher has commented on extensively in his review). Edene's transformation from damsel-in-distress to Queen of the Ghouls exemplifies this. I suspect there's more going on here than meets the eye--after all, al-Sepehr wanted her to escape--but Edene is no puppet. She recognizes al-Sepehr's manipulations for what they are; the long-game conflict between them promises much for the final chapter.

Like Range of Ghosts, though, the true genius of Shattered Pillars lies with the characters and their interactions with a rich, fully-realized world. Bear's portrayal of the physical and social environment is vivid, with a keen attention to detail and to customary practices. One of the strongest elements of Range of Ghosts was, I felt, its treatment of religion. The medieval time period Eternal Sky is based on (and which nearly all epic fantasy is based on) predates secularization, and is one in which individuals made little distinction between the physical and the metaphysical. Gods, saints, demons and monsters were, for the most part, things perceived to be integral to the normal course of things. Fantasy is decidedly ambivalent on this score--sure there's a surfeit of evil gods returned to wreak havoc for the general purposes of evil-doing, but there's a distinct lack of faith in anything else. In medieval societies, on the other hand, religion could be found in nearly all facets of social life. Religion in the world of Eternal Sky is a similarly lived reality, one that literally determines the way the sky looks to you.

Little about this changes in Shattered Pillars, but Bear adds depth to the device. The most interesting example of this comes in a series of vignettes about Hrahima, the Cho-tse (tiger person) warrior who accompanies Temur and Samarkar in their quest to rescue Edene, reclaim the Khaganate and forestall the coming of the Carrion-King. In the faith of the Cho-tse, the divine resides within and can be tapped into as a source of tremendous power. Yet Hrahima has rejected the faith for what are as-of-yet unclear reasons. The question then emerges why anyone would reject faith in a divine power in a context where it is both unimpeachably real and experienced as a wellspring of physical power. The broader implication is to underscore how unlikely it is that individuals in a world like this would actually reject their faith, and to position both systematic critique and even cynicism about religion as luxuries of modernity. This abstracted and expressionistic historical "realism" is a cornerstone of Bear's world-building in Eternal Sky, and one of the reasons it stands out from the bulk of fantasy series.

Bear also generally approaches her subjects with sensitivity and a smart relativism that eschews the moral hierarchies of culture that trickled down from Tolkein. We aren't given a lot of "good" and "bad" practices, only different practices and unique subjectivities. I loved every scene from the perspective of al-Sepehr's agent Saadet, whose body is now also home to the consciousness of her dead twin brother Shahruz, and whom al-Sepehr has sent to be consort to Qersnyk warlord and would-be Khagan Qori Buqa. In order to accomplish her mission, she must make a number of compromises with her religio-cultural norms of femininity and sexuality (many of which are accepted practices among the Qersnyk). Though she knows it is "for the good of the cause," we experience both her revulsion and that of her brother, who increasingly retreats from her. In this I detected an implied critique of gendered mores on sexual behavior, one that would both ask Saadet to employ her sexuality and then shame her for it. Yet this never devolves into an othering of the cultural values of the Rahazeen, the sect of Scholar-God worshippers from which the Nameless cult derives and to which al-Sepehr claims leadership.

I did, however, take issue with other aspects of Bear's portrayal of the Rahazeen. The Nameless, of course, are based on the Shia Assassin cult. The Assassins practiced a subset of Ismailism, itself a subset of Shiism. They were thus outsiders among the Shia, who were outsiders within most Islamic states of the time. In Shattered Pillars, though, the Nameless (i.e. Assassins) are generally conflated with the Rahazeen (i.e. Shia), as if these were one and the same. Perhaps they are, in Bear's world, but this would strike me as a missed opportunity. I have enough faith in Bear as a writer to expect that we'll get more nuance in the next installment, but feel that I would be remiss if I didn't mention the fact that this bothered me.

A bigger problem concerns the plotting. As mentioned above, middle chapters need to strike a balance between hope and despair. And with the kind of trouble Temur and Samarka face, you'd expect that things generally go badly throughout the book. But here's the thing--they don't really. Unlike in Range of Ghosts, I rarely got the sense that Temur and Samarkar were in actual danger. There's always something that intervenes--a newly discovered form of magic or, more often, a magic horse that always seems to show up at the right time and know what to do.** The Nameless assassins pursuing them are, for the most part, hapless Cobra-style cannon fodder. For the record, Bear does a better job of building tension in the Rasan scenes where the wizards Hong-la and Tsering-la grapple with the strange and insidious plague. Hope and despair are indeed balanced nicely in these scenes, something I would have liked to see more of in the main narrative.

Keeping all of this in mind, I think it's fair to say that Shattered Pillars may not be the monumental achievement Range of Ghosts is, but it's still an excellent fantasy book that sets up the final installment neatly. This series should be on the must-read list of any serious fantasy reader.

*Sorry...couldn't figure out how to talk about the book without them!
**Even though I love Bansh, it's overkill.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for the exquisite world-building; +1 for the deep characterization.

Penalties: -1 for Bansh's transformation into deus ex machina horse; -1 for the endless legions of evil Rahazeen/Cobra assassins

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. "Well worth your time and attention."

See how our scoring system is doing its part to fight grade inflation.