Elizabeth Bear


The third and final book in the Eternal Sky epic fantasy series.

Publication year: 2014
Format: print
Publisher: TOR
Page count: 430

Steles of the Sky continues right where Shattered Pillars ended. Al-Sepehr and his assassins seem to be even greater threat than before and our intrepid heroes are really struggling to face him and his allies. Also, when the story starts, the characters have all over the map doing their own things.

Overall, was a good ending to the epic fantasy trilogy with some surprises, too. However, there’s definitely room for more adventures to some of the characters, and the setting is also in an intriguing place.

One of the lesser seen secondary characters starts to call themselves Iskandar which greatly amused me, because that’s one of Alexander the Great’s Eastern names.

Quotes:
“Like any weapon, it only takes one mistake for me to turn in a hand.”

“Comforting thoughts should be questioned more stringently than any others. For they are more likely to lead us astray, as we wish to believe them.”

“It was unwise to dwell on eventualities. Here and now was the only world. Anticipation bred misery.”

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The second book in the Eternal Sky epic fantasy series.

Publication year: 2013
Format: print
Publisher: TOR
Page count: 333

Bear plays with lots of epic fantasy troupes here. It’s not my favorite Bear book but it could be because I’m not really that interested in epic fantasy anymore. Please read the first book “Range of Ghosts” first because she doesn’t waste pages recapping what came before (which is good IMHO).

Re Temur who is the grandson of the great but dead Khagan is still in exile, looking for his lover Edene who was kidnapped by ghosts. However, his quest has changed. Now he, and his companions, are also looking for a way to wrest power from Temur’s usurper uncle and to unite the steppe tribes once again. To do that, Temur has to find a band of loyal steppe soldiers. But first, he needs to rescue Edene from Ala-Din, the headquarters of the followers of the Nameless, the Scholar-God. They’re also assassins who are hunting the small group.

Samarkar-la is a wizard and a former princess. She’s only recently come to her power but has studied magic for years. She’s also in love with Temur and follows him loyally. She’s also looking for a way to stop the leader of the assassins. Hsiung is a mute warrior-monk and Hrahima is a warrior from a tiger-like species. They’ve become a tightly knit band of friends who are very capable of facing the challenges of the road and the assassins.

Meanwhile, a terrible plague is sweeping across the lands. The wizards in Tsarepheth are trying to fight it, while struggling with intrigue. Also, the leader of the Assassins, al-Sepehr, has sent one of his people to cement Temur’s uncle’s claim to become the Khagan, the king of all steppe tribes.

Much like in the first book, in “Shattered Pillars” the main group is moving from place to place with disaster and assassins on their heels. The people around them plot and plan and we see glimpses of them. This book has many POV characters, some of them new.

I like particularly two characters: Edene, who was a secondary character at best in the first book, rose to an unexpected prominence in this one. I loved her development. She was a spirited steppe woman in the first book and now she’s heavily pregnant with a magic ring which gives her extraordinary powers. She managed to escape her captors and encounters dog-faced ghulim who seem to worship her as a queen. She’s determined to keep her unborn child safe and also rescue Temur from whatever dangers he’s facing. And the best way to do that is to become the queen of an evil, mythical place! Loved that even though I don’t really see how she can have a happy ending. I also really grew to like Saadet who is the twin of one of the lead assassins. Her situation is very complicated and interesting.

This whole series is set in a world that has clearly been inspired by the Mongols and the Middle-East. There are some twists to the cultures, which I quite liked, too, such as the Scholar-God being female and yet her religion has been twisted into supporting oppression of women. Apparently, women are so holy that they can’t be seen by men or do anything but menial labor…

The series has a lot of women with agency which was great. Bear also plays with the roles that men and women usually play in epic fantasy books.

Quote:
“What was a book? Not just ink and fiber and stitchery: a series of processes. To a wizard, it was not a static object–but a human thought caught and bound, made concrete through sacred technology. Magic, then, and a deep form of it.”

Set in 1878 in Rapid City in Washington State, it’s a steampunk Western detective story.

Publication year: 2015
Format: print
Page count: 351
Publisher: TOR

Let’s get something out of the way: Karen Memory is a prostitute and she lives in a brothel. She’s also around 17 and not the youngest girl there. She’s also smart and loyal and cares for the other girls. But she prefers to work in Madame Damnable’s brothel to working in a factory, which was at the time dangerous and very dirty.

The book is Karen’s journal and so written in first person and with a dialect.

There are (at least) two main brothels in Rapid City. Hôtel Mon Cherie is run by Madame Damnable who doesn’t allow the girls to drink too much and keeps her place clean. The girls are like family to each other. Also, one of them was born a man. The girls also gather around at evenings, after the clients have gone, and read different sorts of books.

Then there’s Peter Bantle’s place where the girls are kept prisoners, underfed, and beaten. Unfortunately, Bantle is quite influential. One Chinese woman, Merry Lee, tries and sometimes succeeds in freeing Bantle’s girls.

The story starts when Merry Lee comes into Mon Cherie shot and supported by one of Bantle’s escaped slaves. Bantle follows with his goons but Karen and a couple of the other girls and Madame manage to send them away. But a war starts between the two brothels.

Also, a new marshal is in town following a man who murders prostitutes gruesomely. Marshal Bass Reeves is black and he isn’t going to get much help from the locals, except from Karen and her friends.

I really enjoyed this tale a lot. I did have difficulty with the language sometimes, though. I also really enjoyed the side characters and the references to earlier steampunk books, such as to Jules Verne’s books.

A stand-alone book set in the Promethean Age series.

Publication year: 2014
Format: print
Page count: 332
Publisher: Prime

One-Eyed Jack is the personification (Genus Loci) of Las Vegas, or rather one of the two personifications. The other one is his partner and lover Stewart, also known as the Suicide King. They’re in trouble because the personifications of Los Angeles (Goddess and Angel) are trying to kill them and to tie Las Vegas to L. A. Then Stewart vanishes and Jack panics. He conjures up the ghost of John Henry to help him. But two John Henrys show up.

In San Diego a vampire finds a way to get rid of his mistress and then he heads to Las Vegas as well. Why? He looks a lot like the King of Rock and Roll and Las Vegas is familiar ground to him. Meanwhile, back in 1964 two spies known as the American and the Russian are on the run from the Assassin. They’re somewhere in Manhattan when they hear that the Assassin has left for Las Vegas. Of course they follow him.

In this book, Bear plays around with media ghosts. They are characters familiar from various TV shows and movies (and books, I guess, too), and have become archtypes in the minds of (Western) people. The spies are from the year 1964 and they’re not named. They are all very recognizable and behave like their archtypes. While being media ghosts gives them some powers, on the other hand they’re also limited to what they can do; the genre powers and limits them. I’m fairly familiar with them and enjoyed them quite a lot. There are also some legendary ghosts from history. But the current day legends shape them, as well. On the other hand, the genus locii were real people before they died in the city they’re now tied to. Apparently, their lives somehow reflected the idea of the city and that’s why they’re now tied to it.

One-Eyed Jack is part spy story and part vampire story. It also has a smidgen of Western in it. It’s chock full of famous characters and I had a blast reading about them but I don’t think it’s fair to spoil them in a review.

The book has a lot of point-of-view characters, two of them in first person, the rest in third person. However, there’s low chance of getting confused because every (short) chapter has a heading which indicates the POV character. Jack and the undead, named Tribute, are the first person POV characters and they’re quite different from each other.

This is quite different from the other Promethean Age books. I think it’s readable without reading the other books, though, because the magical aspects as explained.

A stand-alone SF book.

Publication year: 2007
Format: print
Page count: 333 + an excerpt of Dust
Publisher: Bantam Spectra

André Deschenes is an assassin but he wants to be more. He’s convinced that he has the talent for “luck” or altering the probabilities of his own actions or even somebody else’s. He lives on Greene’s World, an alien planet where humans have started a mining operation. Most of the humans on the planet are working for the Charter Trade Company which is ruthlessly exploiting the local aliens and the planet. André does assassination for them. He comes from a family of conjurers, as the people who can alter probabilities are called, but he thinks that they are charlatans and want nothing to do with them. Instead, he seeks out Jean Kroc who is supposed to be a very powerful conjurer. He wants to be Jean’s apprentice. Unfortunately, he’s also contracted to kill Jean’s lover, Lucienne. Then there’s Cricket, André’s not-girlfriend and Lucienne’s and Jean’s friend. Cricket is an archinformist who specializes in finding information and doesn’t want any attachments.

Once again, I was fascinated by the world-building. The aliens are a peaceful, aquatic, egg laying humanoids whom the humans have classified as pre-industrial and therefore the humans can use their planet. The humans call them ranids or frogs but the aliens call themselves people. The ranids don’t have social genders and instead of he/she they use “se”. However, they do have endoparents and exoparents and have two different ways of defining a family. The whole greatparents thing was also fascinating. The humans exploit them ruthlessly but don’t want anyone telling that to the wider media. Oh, and they don’t speak in human way. Instead, they use tablet like devices to write out what they want to say and some have learned to lip read humans.

Undertow uses quantum physics in as part of the world-building and I’m not sure I even understood that part. But what I understood I really liked. However, I didn’t really connect with any of the human characters but I would love to get another story about the ranids to see how the ending affected them.

The book has somewhat slow start but once the plot starts rolling, it’s a rollercoaster ride to the end.

The third book in the Jenny Casey SF trilogy.

Publication year: 2005
Format: print
Page count: 400
Publisher: Bantam Spectra

Worldwired starts about nine months after the end of the previous book, Scardown. The world has changed after the disaster (and no, I’m not going to spoil it here) and after two alien starships (from apparently different species) have come to orbit near the Canadian starship Montreal. Unfortunately, for our heroes they can’t communicate with either of the alien ships. A couple of more scientists have been brought to the Montreal but they haven’t had any luck so far.

Meanwhile, international political scene is heating up. The Chinese are accusing Canada of trying to take over the world while the Chinese themselves are behind the disaster. Also, Unitek’s new manager it trying to make Canada’s Prime Minister Riel look bad so that she can be replaced with Unitek’s puppet. The politics in the book are really complex and before the end they involve every character.

However, where the book really shines, and what I enjoyed the most, was the first contact situation in orbit. The humans are thinking of a way to communicate with the aliens and trying some methods. Finally, they decide to send a group into one of the ships. Of course, things don’t go as planned.

Communication is one of the themes of the book and it’s ironic that the humans wants to badly to communicate with the aliens when they can’t communicate with each other. Also, the Artificial Intelligence, Richard Feynman and his various side personalities are in the implants and other nanotechnology which was initially given to the pilots. Now, everybody who is ”infected” with the nanotechnology is wired into Richard. In essence, they have telepathy with Richard and each other which will raise some serious questions about privacy. However, there isn’t enough time to cover that in this book. Also, some questions are raised about how much people can or should rely on Richard who is already running the Montreal, trying to repair Earth’s ecological damage, talking to people in their heads, and trying to communicate with the aliens.

The book has a lot of POV characters and shifts in POV which can be strange to so reader. Of course, the previous books had those as well. This is not an action/adventure SF, but more like a political thriller and ”real life” first contact story in one.

This book again defied my expectations which is a good thing.

The second book in the Jenny Casey SF trilogy.

Publication year: 2005
Format: print
Page count: 368 + an excerpt of Worldwired
Publisher: Bantam Spectra

Scardown continues right after Hammered and most of the familiar characters return. Jenny Casey has been partially reconstructed; she’s a cyborg with metal parts, enhanced reflexes and strength, and an artificial intelligence in her head. She’s also now a pilot to a spaceship. The technology comes from an alien ship found on Mars and the humans don’t really know how the faster than light drive works. However, thanks to humanity, Earth is on the brink of destruction and space seems to be our only hope. Unfortunately, Canada isn’t the only country with a spaceship – China has one as well, and both countries are determined to be the only ones who get to leave Earth.

Jenny, her lover Gabriel Castaign, and Gabriel’s children are in the middle of the space race in a very intimate manner. Gabriel’s older daughter Leah has been accepted into the pilot program along with a dozen other teenagers. Jenny is both proud of her and angry at her government for involving children. She also has to deal with the Unitek, the corporation which is sponsoring the Canadian space race but in a ruthless way. Oh, and Jenny is in around 50 years old and a Native Canadian.

We also follow one of the Chinese pilots, a former gang leader Razorface from the previous book, Elspeth Dunsay who is Gabriel’s other lover and the maker of the AI program, and various other characters. The variety of characters makes the plot quite complex and I recommend reading the books close together. I didn’t do so it was sometimes hard to remember what was in “Hammered.” But I’ve learned my lesson now and will continue with “Worldwired” very soon. This isn’t an easy comfort read, but the reader needs to pay attention and connect the dots herself. Also, the setting is quite complex and the history isn’t spelled out for the reader. I really enjoyed connecting the dots, though.

Personally, I didn’t care for the Razorface storyline which felt tacked on but otherwise I liked this book more than the first one, although it’s a bit too grim and dark for me still. Jenny’s part is written in first person present tense while all the others are in third person and past tense. It can be a bit jarring at first but it didn’t bother me.

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