"I was always a mad comet..." Wilfred Owen
Publishers Weekly reviewer.
Before I discuss this books specifically, I want to give some context. Elizabeth Bear is one of my favorite contemporary authors, and I've read and loved many of her books, including two of her previous fantasy series, The Edda of Burdens and The Promethean Age. Shattered Pillars is book two of a trilogy, The Eternal Sky, book three of which comes out next year.
I bought book one, Range of Ghosts, on the strength of Bear's previous writing. It garnered an unusual amount of acclaim, but I just couldn't get into it. Literally couldn't get past the first page, and nothing I saw skimming through really interested me. I was disappointed that this book, which seemed to be getting the most attention of anything the author had written, just didn't interest me.
However, after reading a preview chapter of Shattered Pillars, featuring the coronation of one of the characters as queen of a deathly kingdom, I decided to buy it, and read it without reading book one.
Some of the same problems remained- main characters Timur and Samarkar, particularly Samarkar, just don't interest me as much as they did most reviewers. Unlike previous protagonists of Bear's books, I didn't feel an emotional connection with them and felt I was learning more about their world than their characters. Also, where the first book lost me with long journeys, this one sometimes bored me with repeated assassination attempts (a hazard of basing the villains on the historical Assassin cult) that came to nothing and weren't really suspenseful. After the umpteenth time our heroes fended off attackers who far outnumbered them, I was annoyed, though a reveal at the end provides an interesting explanation of why they always escaped.
However, there was a lot to like and enough to make me eager to read book three next year. Number one is Edene, made queen of the poisonous, abandoned realm of Erem as she flees her kidnappers. Wandering into a place where time loses its meaning and where life is nocturnal as the sun kills, she becomes a strong fairy-tale queen, clothed in "'armor,' she said, 'and flame.'" But it remains unclear how much of this was intended by her kidnappers. Edene and Erem are what makes this book stand out, magic-and-plot-wise, from other epic fantasies.
The Asian-inspired setting has been much remarked on as something unusual in the field of epic fantasy, but much less remarked on is the fact that the Central-Asian-equivalent hero, Timur, is half-African-equivalent, a bold choice. This is also very much a book that remembers that the Middle East is a part of Asia. Though I generally prefer less obvious real-world inspiration in secondary-world fantasy, Bear has clearly done a lot of research to create a world with a vivid geography and material culture. I'm not the target audience for the focus on material culture or long descriptions generally, but it's definitely an important and well-done component. Some of her twists on our world are interesting, such as an Islam-equivalent that reveres a female God and prophet but is still used by many to justify misogyny. However, I hope that in either book one or book three there are more Rahazeen (one of the sects of that religion) who are not Assassin-equivalents, as the subtext is weird given real-world sectarianism. I am pretty confident that this will happen in one of the other two books.
The writing is beautiful, and if sometimes the copyediting was sloppy or the author was too clearly straining for an unusual or unique sentence (the word "lofted" popped up over and over again), it made the many descriptive passages a pleasure to read, in contrast to many other writers. Her style is especially well suited to describing the eerie realm of Erem, the uninhabited Shattered Pillars of the title, or the citadel of the Assassin-equivalents.
Finally, while I didn't find Timur and Samarkar's thread that interesting until near the end, a subplot involving a plague and political intrigue in Samarkar's home city, involving a different set of characters, definitely gripped me. It catered more toward my own narrative preferences (more plagues and politics, fewer hit men). The point of view of the twins Saadet and Shahruz, antagonists to our heroes, are also included, and Saadet was the only character besides Edene whom I was really invested in. I liked the way these subplots and the Erem subplot were threaded throughout the book and how everything came to a head at the end, promising a packed and fascinating book three.
I can't wait to see how everything ties up in book three, especially with Edene and the mysteries of Erem, as well as how the twins' plotline resolves, but I don't know if I'll try to finish book one until I've seen how the trilogy ends.