The Sea Thy Mistress, released in hardcover and as an e-book the beginning of this month, is the conclusion to Elizabeth Bear’s Edda of Burdens trilogy. It is a direct sequel to All the Windwracked Stars, the first book in this series. By the Mountain Bound, the second book, is actually a prequel that covers events leading up to the beginning of the first published installment. In spite of the fact that The Sea Thy Mistress is the second part of All the Windwracked Stars, I would highly recommend reading the middle volume before the final one since it adds a lot of perspective to the final book. Also, it’s a fantastic book and I enjoyed it about as much as this one.
Please note that events from the end of All the Windwracked Stars impact what happens in this novel. The following review will contain spoilers for this novel (starting with the very first sentence!) since it would be very difficult to discuss it without including some events from that book. If you are curious about the series but want to avoid reading too much about the last book, here are the reviews of the other two books: All the Windwracked Stars and By the Mountain Bound.
Since Muire was willing to take the place of the old Bearer of Burdens after All the Windwracked Stars, the world was not destroyed and life goes on. Thirty-four years after Muire went into the sea, Aethelred came to the shores to let her know that he has finally been able to forgive her for leaving Cahey behind. He’s come to really understand her reasons and believes it was a very mature, difficult choice to make. Even though he knows she may be unhappy about the idea, he also tells her he and some others are building a church – a shrine to preserving knowledge about what Muire did, as she’s no longer around to be the historian. While he is there, Aethelred finds a baby, the son of Muire and Cahey whose existence Muire hid from almost everybody, including the child’s father. Aethelred takes in the child, and Selene sets out to find Cahey and break the news to him.
Two years later, Selene finally tracks down Cahey living a simple life on a farm with a woman he rescued from a group of men about to kill her. Selene informs Cahey that he has a son, and he travels to Aethelred’s house to meet three-year-old Cathmar. Once he has spent some time with the boy, Aethelred prepares to move out, which makes Cahey very anxious. Worried that he’ll repeat bad habits learned from his own abusive upbringing, Cahey says he doesn’t know how to be a father. Aethelred tells him that’s not true because he knows exactly what not to do from how his father treated him and reassures him that he could never hurt Muire’s son.
Shortly before Cahey is united with Cathmar, the goddess Heythe returns to the world and is very upset to discover that her apocalypse failed. Once Cathmar grows older, she wreaks havoc on the lives of both him and his father, those loved by the one who ruined her plans. However, Mingan, who is old enough to have some personal history with her from the first time the world ended, notices her reappearance and vows to keep her from ruining this world.
The Sea Thy Mistress cemented The Edda of Burdens trilogy as one of my favorite series because it has strong writing, a well-developed setting, deep characterization, and a complexity that makes the whole series very worth rereading to better understand it. All the Windwracked Stars was enjoyable, but both By the Mountain Bound and this novel were even better with a more character-driven focus. As is common with novels by Elizabeth Bear, the first published novel in the trilogy had a lack of exposition and only slowly revealed what was going on. The middle volume filled in more of the details about the background until that point and gave more insight into the characters and their past actions and motivations. This concluding volume expanded on both of these with the continuation of threads from both books (and this is why I suggest reading both first, even the prequel – it fills in some of the gaps about past relationships and what happened). Sometime I really want to read these three back to back in chronological order to get the most out of the story and the connections in all the novels.
This particular installment in the series is beautifully written with gorgeous, vivid descriptions without being overly verbose. The story is heavily influenced by the Prose Edda (or perhaps the Poetic Edda or both) with the inclusion of Ragnarok, valkyries, the Midgard serpent, and the great wolf, but it’s not a just a rehash of familiar myths, either – Bear simultaneously incorporated Norse mythology and made it her own. It’s grounded in legends, but by fleshing out the different characters with personalities, making them both similar to and different from their origins, creating new characters and situations, and having a futuristic incarnation of the world it’s very unique. For example, I’m certain Mingan is supposed to be the wolf Fenrir since he’s known as the Wolf (obviously), he’s the son of the trickster (Loki), and he’s been bound, to name a few reasons. Yet he is so much more than the Fenrir of legend with the added complexity of character. He has an evolving personality of his own complete with complicated relationships with Cahey/Strifbjorn, Muire, and Selene. Also if he’s Fenrir, the Imogen must be Hel, but she’s a unique representation of this character with the same basic affiliations with death and hunger – but similar to a vampire in nature.
In this series, Bear shines at creating a riveting cast of characters with struggles and deeply affecting problems. There is a particular emphasis on transformations in this novel – the results of Mingan’s redemption that made Kasimir reveal his name to him, Muire’s change from angel to goddess, and Cahey’s transformation from human to angel. Out of these three main characters throughout the course of the series, this is more Cahey’s book (with Muire barely present but a definite force). Cahey has so much to deal with – the loss of Muire and his inability to truly let go as well as the newfound pressure of being inhuman:
The lambs didn’t surprise him — if Muire’s self-immolation had brought them birds and trees and flowers, it only seemed natural that she, being Muire, would make certain the practicalities were handled. Nor did it surprise him that the humans he met behaved just as he expected humans to behave, from the very start. Some few impressed him with their common decency, their loyalty, their sense of purpose.
But the majority were no better than they should be, and Cathoair found that comforting. They were human, after all. Just people, and people were fragile.
He found he missed the permission to be fragile most of all. [pp. 15]
Once he’s starting to get used to his new life, Cahey discovers the existence of his son which brings up a whole new range of issues. He has to travel to Eiledon, which he’s been avoiding because of Muire’s shrine. Although Cahey logically understands why she left and would defend her memory to anyone, he hasn’t been able to truly forgive her in his heart for leaving him (even if it was for the great cause of preventing the end of the world). Furthermore, he is concerned that he’ll repeat his own father’s past mistakes in raising his child since the only parenting he has experienced was abusive. It was largely about forgiveness – not just of others but of oneself – getting over past grief and keeping it from affecting the present, and sacrifice.
The Sea Thy Mistress is an impressive novel and a fantastic conclusion to the Edda of Burdens trilogy. It has some strong writing with beautifully worded details and emotional appeal. The characters are fully fleshed out and deep with problems related to human nature, even if some of them are angels straight out of Norse mythology. It’s a poignant, heart-breaking but at times hopeful book – and it is one of the best books I’ve yet read from Elizabeth Bear.
My Rating: 9/10
Where I got my reading copy: ARC/finished copy from the publisher (read the ARC, looked through and quoted from the finished copy when writing the review).
Reviews of other books in this series:
This really has nothing to do with the book itself, but I just wanted to add that I love these titles. Not only are they all beautiful but they all match nicely with 5 syllables each. I noticed a lot of Elizabeth Bear’s series have titles that match like that. What do you mean, OCD?