The Red-Stained Wings by Elizabeth Bear
Second books of a trilogy all too often suffer from BBS (Bridge Book Syndrome), and truth be told, Elizabeth Bear’s The Red-Stained Wings (2019) did at times evince several of the symptoms, including a sense of wheel-spinning and the occasional lagging of pace. Luckily, Bear was mostly able to keep the condition in check thanks to the host of remedies she has readily available in her writerly pharmacopeia, including rich characterization, fervent imagination, and vivid, lovely prose. Inevitable spoilers for the first book to follow.
In book one, The Stone in the Skull, the Lotus Kingdom lands that splintered off when the Lotus Empire fell enter a chaotic period of upheaval as the various descendants of the Alchemical Emperor vie for power. More accurately, the allied male descendants (cousins Anuraja and Himadra) try to dominate their female counterparts (Mrithuri and Sayeh) in ways subtle and otherwise, and we pick the story right up in The Red-Stained Wings.
In Sarathai, young Mrithuri is besieged, literally and metaphorically, by her cousin Anuraja, who “requests” her hand in marriage, a proposal he’s made more compelling by surrounding her city with an immense army. To further smooth his path, he’s captured Mrithuri’s cousin Sayeh, the ruler of the nearby kingdom of Ansh-Sahal, and is cruelly pressuring her to accede to be his intermediary and convince Mrithuri to marry him. Besides political and physical intimidation, Anuraja is also using Sayeh’s young son against her. That son, Drupada, was kidnapped by Anuraja’s ally and cousin Himadra, who is trying to make his way back home to his own small kingdom. Himadra has his own plans for Drupada, hoping to declare himself “regent” and thus control Ansh-Sahal’s people (the kingdom itself was mostly destroyed in book one). Adding to the chaos in all this are two powerful sorcerers, Ravani and Ravana, the former advising the Anuraja and the latter Himadra. Finally, while the siege of Sarathai continues and Himadra heads for home, the mechanical man known as The Gage continues on the quest given him in The Stone in the Skull, to seek help amidst the poisonous lands in the city of dragons.
Bear deftly uses a number of POVs to convey the various subplots: Mrithuri, Sayeh, and Mrithuri’s captain and lover, Serhan (referred to mostly by his title The Dead Man), for the siege; Himadra for his return home; and Gage for his journey through the wasteland. Each is wonderfully different from the other.
The Dead Man for instance is both a foreigner still sometimes mystified by this new land he finds himself in and, thanks to his military experience, comes to events with both a more confident stance and a more jaded eye. Thanks to her youth, Mrithuri displays (especially in her interior monologues) a more unsure sense of self, and her attempts to hide that lack of certainty from her court as she grows into a more confident ruler is one of the book’s many strengths. Sayeh brings an older woman’s sensibility and wisdom (both often wryly shared), as well as a mother’s perspective. Himadra is in many ways the most interesting in that he could easily have been a simplistic villain, but instead his character in this novel unfolds into a much more rich characterization.
All of the main characters, in fact, are richly complex and grow more so as they reveal more of themselves to us via actions, speech, and interior thought. Even better, their relationships as well grow more complicated and compelling. Bear does an excellent job of varying style and tone to individualize the POVs; one could remove all names, pronouns, and setting/plot details and still identify the speaker/thinker thanks to vocabulary, syntax, and the like.
The plotting, as noted earlier, does sometimes lag, especially in the first half (even some characters comment on the waiting), and I’ll be curious once I’ve finished the trilogy if I’ll think Bear needed all three books or if a duology would have sufficed. There are several exciting action scenes, such as one of the attacks on the city. And the siege is meant, I think, to be even more tense thanks to the knowledge that there is a spy amongst Mrithuri’s people, though it was pretty obvious who that was, such that I wondered why nobody was doing more about it. Honestly though, I’m not even sure it was meant to be a secret (though it’s never explicitly revealed until toward the end); it’s quite possible we knew the spy from book one, and I’m just not recalling that. Bear does a nice job of balancing scenes involving action (attacks, ambushes) and suspense (tense face-offs, stealthy shadowing) with more intimate, character-focused scenes and even, in Himadra and the Gage’s storylines, some biting, almost academic exploration of class, economy, government, and worker exploitation.
The world-building remains top notch, as it has throughout all Bear’s work in this universe, and we get to see even more of it here, both in a literal sense (for instance, via the Gage’s travels through the poisonous lands) and a more metaphysical one, as we meet several gods (or pieces of gods) and learn more of the backstory of this world. And the prose is, as always with Bear, vividly detailed, as in this description: “the river so wide and slow and clotted with rafts of roots and lotus that it had become a slowly moving garden as the summer wore on.”
It’s not only in her physical description, though, that Bear wields a keen eye, as when Sayeh, after laughing at something Anuraja says, thinks, “He would never know how practiced. Men like that, so full of themselves, never knew how much women must rein themselves in, present themselves as a work of art. A performance, as much as any dance.”
Despite having a bit of the Bridge Book Syndrome feel to it, and some strong sense in the middle of things moving a bit too slowly, The Red-Stained can’t help but draw you in thanks to the richness and complexity of its characters and setting, the substantive depth of many of the themes it explores, and Bear’s always varied and always precise prose. I’m looking forward to book three, especially given new turns and new characters presented in the very end here.
The Lotus Kingdoms #1 The Stone in the Skull #2 The Red-Stained Wings
The Eternal Sky Trilogy #1 Range of Ghosts #2 Shattered Pillars #3 Steles of the Sky
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