Multiple Hugo Award winner Elizabeth Bear enthralls fans with this compelling first book in the Eternal Sky series. In a world where wizards are unable to procreate, Temur, heir to his empire’s throne, flees to avoid assassination. Once-Princess Samarkar, formerly heir to her own empire’s throne, gives up everything to seek the wizards’ magical power. Drawn together by fate, Temur and the Once-Princess must stand against a cult inciting strife and civil war in all the empires.
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Elizabeth Bear has clearly done her history homework. Not that this is history, or even alternate history, but more a hero's tale knitted from impressions of history. In a world where various empires have come and gone, battling gods have shattered the very sky. The war rising to sweep across nations begins with a reluctant claimant to a his grandfather's throne, stumbling alone off the battlefield after having been left for dead.
Temur doesn't want to rule, he only wants to live and maybe find a new family with the woman he loves, but his uncle wants him dead, and a distant cult bent on sowing chaos and destruction wants to use him, or his unborn child.
Once-Princess Samarkar has given up her fertility to find power of her own. Now she must put her skills and wits to use in aiding Temur's cause, as that seems the best course of stopping the cult using necromancy and black sorcery that is seeking to spread war to every realm under the shattered sky.
The story moved along at a good speed, and I found the characters believable, earthy and easy to care about. Just be warned that this is part one, and the end will leave you desperately wanting to know what happens next.
I've been trying to read more fantasy with non-traditional settings (i.e. not patterned after medieval Europe), and this one got some positive press on a sci-fi/fantasy blog I follow. Elizabeth Bear really does do a fine job with world building, crafting a mythic, magic-infused reality patterned after Central Asia, with analogs of Mongolia, China, Persia (I think), Arabia (I think), and a few other places. The images she conjures up can be quite lovely and cinematic, and I enjoyed the concept of having different skies in different places, such as the multiple moons that hang over the steppe, or the sun that goes west-to-east in another land.
Bear also does a good job of developing a world where women wield power in different ways, as rulers, magicians, or soldiers. It's not overdone, with the sort of ridiculous female badasses one sees in some books, but feels authentic to the world. The most compelling character here is the former princess Samarkar, who chose to sacrifice her title and fertility to begin training in magic. The catch of this system, though, is that a lot of people who make the sacrifice don’t receive the gift, but have no way of knowing in advance.
That said, I was less enamored with the plot, which didn’t offer many surprises. After a picturesque opening in which the young steppe warrior, Temur, regains consciousness on a corpse-littered battlefield, he meets a young woman from another tribe, falls for her, then vows to rescue her after she’s abducted by ghosts summoned by an enemy wizard. He meets up with Samarkar and several other characters, and they travel about, trying to rally the forces of good against a coming war that will no doubt feature in the sequel. Except for a few good scenes, it’s not much more riveting than my summary. It’s hard for me to get excited about action sequences where the main characters are all rather competent, work together well, and never seem in much danger.
Hardly a *bad* book, though -- I applaud Bear for doing the Guy Gavriel Kay magical-historical fantasy thing pretty well with her setting and her writing is a cut above the rest of the pack -- but the characters, storyline, and themes didn’t excite me as much as I’d hoped they would. And I wasn’t a great fan of Celeste Ciulla’s audiobook reading -- it sounded too “modern” to my ears.
Call this an on-the-fence review. Not a book I would dissuade others from reading, since Bear is a capable writer and worth investigating, but not one of my strongest recommendations.