I’ve finally begun thinking about goals for 2018. I’ve got the usual writing goals – finish one novel that is in the works, make significant progress on the WWI fantasy trilogy, and write/finish ten new short stories. But on top of that, I’ve decided I need to read more, so I’m adding “Read 100 novels” as part of my goals. I’ve downloaded the NPR book concierge list of best books of 2017, which includes everything from non-fiction science stuff to fantasy and science fiction novels, and will randomly pull things from that list as the year progresses. I think doing so will give me a chance to read a greater diversity of books than I’ve been doing lately. I’m heavy on the science fiction and fantasy, and much too light on everything else. And even within fantasy, I tend towards either “real world magical literalism” or “high fantasy with dragons.”
That last part is why I’d avoided novels like Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy for so long. It’s not traditional high fantasy (though it actually is). I started the first book a few months ago (audiobook version), and in between I spent my week at Viable Paradise, and inserted the Karen Memory novel between books one and two. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the first book either, Range of Ghosts. I did actually. Then I got book two, and tore through that and book three. I’ve spent considerable time since then thinking about the novels and why I had been so reluctant to get into them when I clearly enjoyed them.
First, there is a huge swath of worldbuilding that went into these books. I think that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown less tolerant of having to “learn a new world.” It’s easier to get into the books I like – real-world magical fantasy like American Gods or Spoonbenders, or typical high fantasy like Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings – because of the lower bar to entry. You know these worlds, they are familiar to you already either from being analogs of our real world, or from long experience in that genre. The Eternal Sky series is like nothing I’ve ever read before, and it took time for the differences to become concrete in my mind, become “accepted” by my thought process. Basically you have to learn an entire new structure for a fantasy world, and these days I seem to prefer spending less time with learning new things, and more times settling into something comfortable and well-worn. And I’m not saying that’s a good thing, just musing on why it was so hard for me to get into the first book.
Once I got into them, though, I loved them. I’d never read fantasy with an eastern, Mongolian, Chinese, Russian, medieval influence before, and it was wondrous. There are so many unique things about the setting that I can’t even begin to go into them all. From the sky above, which is broken and appears differently depending on which empire holds influence (and even then, there might be magical creatures who affect that influence). To the familiar, yet strange creatures like the ghulim. To the various ways magic manifests in each realm, from the moons in the night sky of the Qersnyk that represent members of the ruling party (appearing and disappearing as they are born and die) to the poisonous words of Erem and its deadly sun. There is a LOT going on here, and I imagine the world building must have taken a tremendous effort in its own right.
Once your ship has been righted and you grow used to the world, to all the strange terms and names that are being used, this is a story you fall into and fall in love with. The characters are rich and varied, and though there were many different stories from many different character’s points of views, I didn’t feel as though we were head hopping. All the stories worked towards a satisfying, if sad, conclusion, tied together in a big knot. I really should have picked Ms. Bear’s brain more thoroughly during VP, I’d love to know her process for handling this sort of sweeping tale. Did she build the world first and then the story? How did she determine how each story would wind together and end up at the same place? Is there a spreadsheet involved, which would be a bonus for a spreadsheet building geek like me? Whatever the case, it was a deft maneuver for such a sweeping saga.
And the characters are as rich as the world. Each had their own story to tell, each worked towards making sure their needs and goals were reached. This was not about one person and everyone else along to prop them up. This was the best example I can think of where everyone had their own sense of agency. It simply turned out that most of the main character’s had goals that were mutual in the end, and worked together to achieve them. And I should add that a large portion of the main characters are women, each with different needs, abilities, strengths and weaknesses. This was not a male-dominated story where the women played supporting roles. Everyone felt like “the protagonist.” Everyone was important.
On the Reynolds Wrap scale that ranges from “licking dirt off the floor” to “the finest meal you’ve ever had”, this ranks a 9 out of 10. I only knocked it down one point because of how much world building you have to absorb before you are swept away by the story. But once it takes in your head, you will be swept away.
Unrelated review – last night I finally watched “Kong: Skull Island.” The only positive things I have to share about this movie is that it had a giant ape in it, and Loki was a lot nicer than he usually is. Otherwise, it was without redeeming value or worth, and you should totally avoid it.
Bonus bonus review – I do laundry on Sunday, and call that my “bad movie day.” So last time I watched “Great Wall” with Matt Damon. I’d like to say something good about it, find a positive thought. Alas… it’s not possible. It is utterly without redeeming value of any sort. Just… just horrible. There’s Bad… then there’s So Bad it Becomes Good… and then there’s Great Wall Bad, which clearly strove to achieve So Bad it Became Good levels, and utterly fails even at that low bar.