Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Microreview [book]: The Red-Stained Wings by Elizabeth Bear

The Red-Stained Wings is a worthy new instalment in a rich, dense world

Cover art by Richard Anderson
I have heard others speak of a legend. A form of reading lost to the mists of time; an elegant hobby for a more civilised age. They say that, in the time before there were Too Many Books that Need to be Read, the Readers were able to spend time between their must-read new titles, enjoying the same book a second... or third... or fifth... or eighteenth time. Yes, that's right, I have heard that once, readers could RE-READ books.

On hearing others speak of this concept, I retreat into being the charming, untrustworthy sceptic with little time for rediscovering lost arts as long as there's a blaster and a trusty ship (or an ereader and and a city's worth of bookshops) to hand. The Skywalkers can go off on their quests to rediscover the worlds they already immersed themselves in months or years ago, but my ever-growing pile of new books and sequels says I should focus on it and I'm quite happy moving on through these new adventures. Then I start in on The Red-Stained Wings, the second in Elizabeth Bear's Lotus Kingdoms series, and realise I'm right in the middle of an intricate plot which I have not held in my head for the last year, and for some reason books are not kind enough to help me out with a "story so far" summary. Which is to say, the review is due and security locks on the Rathtars just came loose and oh, hey, how're you going to bluff your way out of this one, Adri?

Luckily, the action of the Red-Stained Wings is not that hard to get back into, even for those coming into it less-than-perfect reviewing circumstances. Despite the focus on the blurb, the focus here is very much on two rajnis in very different circumstance: Mrithuri, the ruler of Sarathai-tia, the city around which most of the action takes place and which is now under siege from a "suitor" who wants to claim political power for himself; and Sayeh, whose own kingdom has been destroyed by natural disaster and who is now prisoner of that same suitor while her son is held captive by yet another rival. Sayeh is also considered "third gender": assigned male at birth, she identifies and is recognised as feminine by all other characters, goes by female pronouns and carried her son to term with some magical assistance. Her gender identity is commented on by other characters as an impediment to maintaining legitimacy in a patriarchal political environment (as is Mrithuri's), but none ever question the identity itself.

The backdrop to all these political manoeuvres is the history of the Lotus Kingdoms, which were once united under a single empire but have now become separate once more - a separation which could be undone, by the right heir. Also in the mix (and on the blurb) are the Gage - an automaton now off on a journey to find aid for Mrithuri's fight - and the Dead Man, a survivor of a deposed regime who now works as a veiled mercenary, and in the previous book started a sweet but politically inadvisable relationship with Mrithuri which continues into this book. And behind that is a rotating cast of political rivals, assassins, advisors, spies, poets, wizards of various (confusing) magical flavours and birds, some of whom span right back to Bear's original trilogy set in this world, Range of Ghosts. This is where not having the detail of at least the previous book made things more difficult, as I struggled to remember who had been hanging out with who and why, but most of the main cast are distinct and easy to get to grips with as the book goes on.

There's a great sense of momentum in The Red-Stained Wings, a feeling even more impressive for the fact that most of the political action in the book is centred around a siege (not generally the most dynamic of military actions). There's a balance between the sense of hopelessness in Mrithuri's camp as they wait for a literal deus ex machina in the form of God-given rains, while also attempting to take control of the situation they have found themselves in. The Gage's quest takes him across the desert to a land of dragonglass, which expands the worldbuilding into satisfying new territory. The "core" worldbuilding of the series continues to be a highlight, and although it feels like we get less of Bear's politicised astronomy (where heavenly bodies literally change according to what land you're in, from dual-sunned places where daylight never ends to country where the stars all correspond to dead leaders), the history and geography of the Lotus Kingdom in the context of the wider world always feels well-considered and real, giving weight in turn to the complex desires, motivations and machinations of the characters who populate it.

It should be noted that the Lotus Kingdoms are based on historic India and this isn't own voices. Elements like Sayeh's third gender identity and the presence of characters of different genders who veil are present in ways which feel matter-of-fact about the diverse potential of human experience, rather than as an exploration of real-world analogues. It's a contrast to something like Tasha Suri's Empire of Sand, which incorporates purdah in its fantasy setting to directly address concepts of power and agency which are applicable to how we view women in the source culture. As a white woman, its not my place to wade into the wider debate about cultural appropriation and the use of culture in fantasy stories outside one's "lane", but I think it's worth pointing out that these texts are aiming to achieve different things, and I think there's space for both which is related but doesn't entirely overlap with the conversation about who gets to tell diverse stories.

I therefore come away from The Red-Stained Wings enthusiastic and entertained despite the lingering sense of confusion from not having the series history at my fingertips. From start to finish, this book delivers action and intrigue in equal measure, backed by a core cast of deeply satisfying protagonists and thinner but equally compelling antagonistic forces. There's an elephant in the room, however: yep, you should probably reread The Stone in the Skull, or at least have it better embedded in your memory, to really get the full effect out of this one - and it might even be worth visiting the previous trilogy for good measure. It's all very well to whisper "everything's fine here, uh, how are you" into your Kindle screen every time another character whose position and alignment you can't quite remember walks on stage, but sometimes we have to accept that there are better ways to do things if we make time for them, and The Red-Stained Wings cements Bear in my mind as an author whose series are worth making time for. You may officially berate me for this when book three comes out and I inevitably end up in the same position once more, but hey, regardless, I'll be there to see how Mrithuri, Sayeh and their mercenary pals end up.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 Effortless inclusion of queer characters in a varied, entertaining cast

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference: Bear, Elizabeth. The Red-Stained Wings [Tor, 2019].