Shattered Pillars is the second book in the Eternal Sky trilogy, following the phenomenal Range of Ghosts. The final book in the trilogy, Steles of the Sky, is scheduled for release in April 2014 (and the gorgeous cover was revealed not too long ago).

Since this review covers the second book in a series, it will contain spoilers for the first book. If you are curious about Eternal Sky but do not want to start with a review of the middle volume, here is my review of Range of Ghosts. I don’t have much to say about the second book that I didn’t say about the first anyway—I loved everything about it and think it’s an incredibly well-written and executed fantasy novel, certainly among the best I’ve ever read.

In Range of Ghosts, the ruling Khagan and his heir were both killed, leaving Temur as the successor. However, Temur’s uncle Qori Buqa would be Khagan and would like to remove Temur as an obstacle. When Temur became close to a young woman, Edene, Qori Buqa had her captured by the Nameless and their blood ghosts. Temur sought to rescue her from her captivity and eventually met and joined forces with Samarkar, a former princess who gave up this role in order to become a wizard. Shattered Pillars continues the story of their attempts to gain recognition for Temur as Khagan and their journey to rescue Edene from al-Sepehr’s fortress—and expands to show the influence of al-Sepehr and his plots, as well as Edene’s own journey after her successful escape from her captor at the end of the first book.

When I read my very first book written by Elizabeth Bear, I was enchanted by her elegant prose and smart, subtle storytelling, and I knew I had discovered something special. As I’ve read more of her writing, I’ve only grown more impressed, especially since her books keep getting better and better. Her Edda of Burdens trilogy, completed a couple of years ago, contained my favorite of her books, but now that I’ve read the first two Eternal Sky books I’m quite confident this trilogy will surpass it. It’s cemented my opinion that Elizabeth Bear is one of the very best speculative fiction authors writing at the moment. Certainly, she’s the best I’ve read in terms of consistently writing high quality fiction—and Shattered Pillars is now my favorite of her books.

Shattered Pillars is a middle book with some of the key characteristics of the second book in a trilogy. It does seem to have a lot of setup with some major events in the final chapter leading up to an exciting finale. Despite this, I hardly noticed that this was the case since I actually enjoyed reading it even more than the first book. It has a lot of different point of view characters, especially considering it’s not a massive doorstopper of a fantasy book at a mere 333 pages, but they all add to the story. I felt like I got a better sense of both the world cultures and the different characters and their motivations than in the first book because of all the different perspectives. It had the perfect amount of detail, enough to effortlessly picture the scenes but not enough to bog down the novel.

One of the reasons I loved this book so much despite the fact that there was not much progression toward a plot resolution is that it had more of the same excellent qualities of the first book—more gorgeous prose, more depth of culture and amazing world mythology, and more characterization. It also had an occasional bit of humor that I don’t remember being in the first book (but it’s been awhile since I read the first book so it’s entirely possible I just don’t remember those moments!).

The characters are all wonderfully written. Samarkar was my favorite in the first book, and I grew to admire her character even more in Shattered Pillars. I just love how politically savvy, intelligent, and practical she is. In Range of Ghosts, Samarkar makes the sacrifice that is required to become a wizard even though it is a great risk. She could have died, and even if she survived, there was no guarantee her sacrifice would gain her power. Many wizards do not, but Samarkar is one of the fortunate who does, though she is told she is not extraordinarily powerful. Yet she can inspire awe in others due to her ability to think quickly: her wit is where her true power lies. Her magic is not hand-waving and chanting the correct words but using real-world knowledge to solve problems.

The contrast between Samarkar and Temur’s characters due to their pasts is very well-done, and I think it’s rare that an author manages to capture how characters are shaped by their pasts so naturally. Samarkar was born before her brothers and was raised as a princess, and she is more knowledgeable about politics, more practical, and more confident. Temur seems less sure of himself and more naive. He is both younger than Samarkar and a second son, one it was assumed would serve his brother the Khagan rather than be Khagan himself, and he appears to be less experienced due to this. These show in their actions, but it also doesn’t beat readers over the head with all the contributing factors due to the two characters respective upbringings.

In addition, I love how capable the women in these books are. Samarkar has saved Temur numerous times, even though he is not defenseless or incapable. When Samarkar points out Temur should listen to her because she saved his life once, he laughs at this remark because she has saved him far more than once. In one memorable scene, a character asks to be clothed like a queen, and it’s assumed she means silks and satins. Her response is that she means armor and flame. She is one who acts, one who is in the position to be dressed like a queen because she put herself in that position—and dressing like a queen does not mean looking elegant but being ready for action.

Samarkar and Temur are certainly my favorite characters, but they are far from the only well-written characters. I also enjoyed learning more about Hrahima and Brother Hsiung’s pasts, and I really appreciated that I could sympathize with Saadet, even though she is an enemy of Temur and Samarkar. To my surprise, I even found myself warming up to Qori Buqa, the cause of so many of Temur’s problems, in a scene where he just seemed like an ordinary man who liked to hunt and had affection for his horse. Even Bansh, Temur’s horse, is a well-developed character (and the most useful horse to have around when one is in a tight spot!).

There’s much to praise about Shattered Pillars, and I loved everything about it. The world is definitely fantasy, but it’s also realistic with its different cultures and factions. It has amazing characters, gorgeous writing, a touch of horror with a creepy plague, occasional humor, subtlety, and poise. If the final book in this trilogy is even close to the quality of the first two, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Eternal Sky became a fantasy classic.

My Rating: 10/10

Where I got my reading copy: Review copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from Shattered Pillars

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