Elizabeth Bear‘s fantasy trilogy, Eternal Sky, takes classic elements of fantasy and slyly turns them on their head. At the beginning of the first book, Range of Ghosts, we’re introduced to Re Temur, a young warrior and heir to the Qersnyk empire. He could easily be mistaken for the hero of the novel as he plans to rescue Edene, his lover, from captivity.
However, Edene frees herself. The oaths Temur sets upon himself largely become fulfilled not because Temur has accomplished them, but because the strong women throughout the novels have either saved themselves, saved Temur, or fought as equals with Temur.
Temur wants to re-unite his grandfather’s empire, but it quickly becomes apparent that he needs a cast of characters to help him on this quest. The strong female characters throughout the series include: Samarkar, a wizard and once-princess, who gave up her ability to have children in order for magic to fill the void; Hrahima, a giant tiger being who is a total bad-ass; Edene, Temur’s love interest and very capable tribeswoman; Tsering, a theoretical wizard; Yangchen, a young queen; Saadet, an assassin; and Ümmühan, a slave poetess and priestess to a sect that worships the Scholar God. The Scholar God is also female and women are revered by some cultures because they have been made in her image. There are other strong female characters in the series, but they play a more minor role.
Gender is also explored in the Shaman-remembers of the Qersnyk people, who are sometimes hermaphrodites. The Shaman-remembers are normal to the Qersnyk, but to people from the Uthman Caliphate and the Nameless, they are seen as abominations to the Scholar God.
If you’re tired of the same old fantasy novel and want to read something that embraces women, then read this series. The first and third books felt the strongest to me, while the second book mostly sets up the third novel.
One issue I had with the novels was when a character receives a ring that opens up secrets to her. She becomes the Queen of Poisoned Things and no secrets can hide from her. Yet, secrets clearly do hide from her. She is unable to use the ring to learn important names. She does not use the ring to see where people are. In Bear’s wonderful world-building, this felt like a huge flaw, one that nearly made me quit reading.
Getting back to the world-building though, Bear creates rich cultures for different kingdoms and people in the series. It’s loosely based on Central Asia instead of Western Europe and each kingdom has their own sky, as part of their religious system, that physically marks the boundaries of their rule. It’s a cool idea and works well as conquest takes place.
My other minor complaint with the second and third novels are the recaps woven into the initial pages. I doubt someone would start with book two, Shattered Pillars, or book three, Steles of the Sky. It comes off as unnecessary and gets in the way of the story to have prose that tells us what happened in previously in the narrative.
Overall, the books are refreshing, fun, and explore gender roles like no other fantasy novels I’ve read.