The Big Idea: Elizabeth Bear

Two things you need to know for today’s Big Idea: One, Elizabeth Bear is one of this generation’s best science fiction and fantasy authors, and Steles of the Sky is the latest in her acclaimed Eternal Sky series; Two, there’s a really big and awesome announcement in this Big Idea. Okay? Here you go, then:


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

So there’s this guy, right? And he’s the youngest son of a branch of the royal family, but his older brother, the heir-apparent, is killed in battle with another branch of the line, and he nearly dies himself–



…okay, I’m yanking your chain. That’s not the Big Idea here. That all actually happened before the beginning of the first book, Range of Ghosts, which I Big Ideaed about here.

Yes, it’s a pretty traditional setup. But I just might have gotten lucky and done something interesting with it this time.

Today, though–today I’m here to talk about the third and final book in the trilogy*, Steles of the Sky, which releases today.

The Big Idea here is… well, there are a lot of them. Humanoid tigers with an esoteric religion; occasional megafauna (possibly the name of our illustrious host’s next band); the unreliability of history (which is generally being written by a lot of different people with different agendas over the course of centuries); all the things women actually did in the premodern era…

Wait. Let’s talk about those last two things.

Every so often we hear the excuse that women have no place in epic fantasy stories because medieval women didn’t actually do anything. They were simply fungible objects, pumping out babies and keeping house.

Even if one were to ignore the exceptional women of history–the Hypatias and Hatshepsuts and Hildegards, the Eleanors and Aethelflaeds and Nzinga Mbandes, the Ching Shihs and Khutuluns and Tomoe Gozens–the women who, more or less, took on roles usually identified as masculine–one is left with women who spun, who wove, who ran households, who served as the supply chain managers for their male relatives’ armies, who participated in their husbands’ businesses and explorations–or took them over, after those husbands died–who, in general, performed enormous amounts of unpaid labor on their families’ behalves and got absolutely no credit for it.

Tycho Brahe said of his sister, Sophie Brahe Thott, that she had as fine a mind as any man. She’s worth reading about. She is very far from alone.

These women are often erased in history. They took their husbands’ names. They lived in societies that believed the only time a woman’s name should be recorded was when she was born, got married, gave birth, or died.

And they are often erased in literature, as well.

(It’s interesting to me that at least one review of Steles of the Sky so far has said that every major character other than the protagonist is female. This is not actually true–the points of view are about equally divided between women and men) but it does go to show that if you start approaching parity, people think the women are taking over.)

Even in modern fantasy literature, where we ought to know better. Where we have the scholarship and the knowledge of history not to erase the accomplishments of historical women by treating each and every one as an exception, a lone thing, and not part of a tradition.

Capable women are not the exception. But women who have managed to make such nuisances of themselves that they cannot entirely be erased from history–they are harder to find.

So I wanted to talk about some of those accomplishments. I wanted to show some epic women who were not warriors, not fireball-throwing sorcerers, and who still managed to have an impact. (There are some warriors and sorcerers too, of course.)

I wanted to remind myself, as a writer and a human being, that capable women are not the exception in history. That they should not be in literature, either.

Also, if awesome women aren’t enough for you, this book has an amazing Donato cover, and an equally amazing Ellisa Mitchell map.

*And–here’s the even bigger idea! (and way to bury the lede, Bear!), but I have an announcement to make.


There are going to be more Eternal Sky books!

While Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars, and Steles of the Sky comprise a complete story arc in and of themselves, I can now reveal that Tor will be publishing at least three more books in this world. We came to an agreement late last month, and I can tell you this–here, exclusively:

This second trilogy, The Lotus Kingdoms, will follow the adventures of two mismatched mercenaries–a metal automaton and a masterless swordsman–who become embroiled in the deadly interkingdom and interfamilial politics in a sweltering tropical land.

Look for them starting in 2017.


Steles of the Sky: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

32 Comments on “The Big Idea: Elizabeth Bear”

  1. I just discovered your writing thanks to your story “The Leavings of the Wolf” in the latest Apex anthology. Looking forward to reading more!

  2. Tycho Brahe said of his sister, Sophie Brahe Thott, that she had as fine a mind as any man.

    Way to insult your sister, Tycho! (Then again, what can you expect of a man with a silver nose?)

    Having worked in science for mumbledy-some years, it has been my experience that the women who do research are at least as capable as the men – and usually a darn sight more fun to be around. And I don’t think that it is a coincidence that the first person to win two Nobel prizes (and the only person to win two in science-related fields) was Marie Curie.

    it does go to show that if you start approaching parity, people think the women are taking over

    Sadly true of all civil rights situations; far too many people think that the pool of rights is small and letting some people in means pushing others out. They don’t realize that adding more people just changes that shallow pond into an exciting ocean.

    Your ideas sound interesting; I’ll have to give your books a try.

  3. Reblogged this on Chang Space and commented:
    I am proud to say that Elizabeth Bear has schooled me righteously on my writing and ways of being a writer. She is a powerhouse herself and if you ain’t read her yet then do so promptly!


    I am proud to say that Bear has schooled me on the ways of writing because she is a master in the field. I love her work and look forward to checking this out. Yeehah!

  5. 2017? Damn. Not that I begrudge you the time necessary to write the stories – it’s just such a very long time to wait!

    And at least my long-since pre-ordered copy of “Steles of the Sky” is supposed to arrive today.

  6. Hooray for more books in this universe! (And I really like the combination of several short series in the same setting: it combines the best features of both long and short series.)

    Also, I’ve heard the same thing about parity. The department I got my PhD at only had about 1/3 women (in the first few years), but people kept assuming we were about even until you go through the lists and count.

  7. Take my money! I love this series. Of course, it’s likely to take rather longer to come out down under …

  8. tariquata–

    There will be an unrelated Wild West steampunk novel starring heroic parlor girls and a certain often-mischaracterized historical figure in 2015 (KAREN MEMORY) and, if Sarah Monette and I can keep our momentum up, the much-delayed third Iskryne novel (THE REPUBLIC OF ELVES… I mean, AN APPRENTICE TO ELVES) in 2016.


  9. Thanks, Ms Bear – I’ll be keeping my eye out for both! (I found your work through the original Big Ideas post for Range of Ghosts and raced through it and the first two Iskryne books in about three days, so hearing about more in both worlds is very exciting news. :)

  10. I’m just about to start this series, sometime in the next week or two, so I think I’m going to just skip reading anything here.
    Nothing that I’ve read that came from Elizabeth Bear has not delighted me, so I’m spacing things out some.

  11. ” the adventures of two mismatched mercenaries–a metal automaton and a masterless swordsman–”

    Gage and the Dead Man from “The Ghost Makers”?

  12. And more of my money wanders over to Elizabeth Bear. Ah well, I can’t think of a better use for it anyway.

    More Eternal Skies books, yay!

  13. OMG. I am so thrilled I can’t see straight. Have Steles. Haven’t yet started because haven’t re-read the first two & with my memory…. So thrilled there will be more. Assuming any of us are still alive in 2017.

  14. I always find it disappointing when my favorite authors, yourself excluded of course, can’t write good female characters. It is unfortunately common is Sci Fi and Fantasy.

  15. Wonderful! And I remembered right. I wasn’t 100% sure since the book is at home, and I’m here at work not working.

    For those confused, “The Ghost Makers” is in Fearsome Journeys: The New Solaris Book of Fantasy. Which you should get. Not just for Bear’s short, but for the others, too.

  16. Hiya, Bear!

    “…this book has an amazing Donato cover…”

    The editor in me needs to point out that there is an unnecessary adjective in that sentence.

    pax / Ctein

  17. Hurray! I had no idea this had just come out.

    I really enjoyed the first two books of the series. Samarkar is the most compelling part of the story to me – her backstory was what hooked me in the first book – but I’m also very much looking forward to seeing what happens to Saadet in book 3.

  18. I have on purpose not read any of the Eternal Sky books because I hate getting all into a book and caught up in the characters and story and then having to wait for, like, a year for the sequel. I had already decided when the first book came out that I would wait until all three books were out so I could read them one right after the other in one swell foop. As it happens, I am moving house in midMay, and two days after the moving guys come and move my stuff from one place to the other is my birthday. So as a reward for the disruption, upheaval, and otherwise general rannygazoo and carry-on of relocating myself and three cats to new digs, this trilogy is going to be my birthday present from me to me, and I am going to do nothing but lie about in the bed for a week reading the whole thing at my leisure and otherwise not do a durn thing I don’t absolutely have to. I frankly cannot think of a better way to spend a birthday, especially as the word is, this is the best Bear yet.

  19. Have really enjoyed just about everything Elizabeth Bear has written. My favorite, however, is “The Stratford Man” from her Promethean Age series. That seems to have stalled although I’ve pre-ordered “One-Eyed Jacks” for years now it seems. I too plan to read this trilogy now that all the books are out–got burned waiting for more in the other series.

  20. WOL: Enjoy!

    Maryann: The Promethean Age series was not so much stalled as dropped by the publisher.

    However, ONE-EYED JACK was already finished when the old publisher declined it, and there have been some bumps in getting it out with a small press. However, it should be available in late summer from Prime Books–the pub date I’ve been given is August 13th.

    I’m not sure if there will be any more, although I’ve contemplated running a Kickstarter for PATIENCE AND FORTITUDE. However, since I currently have two series going, the issue is more time than interest.


  21. Wow! Nice of you to respond. I do like all of your work–that series just got to me at the right time, I guess. I’m a huge Shakespeare fan–and of Christopher Marlowe too. I’ll just console myself with these books now that they are all out. (But I’d certainly chip in if you do try Kickstarter)

  22. I understand why Big Idea pieces are usually done earlier, but I’d like to say how much I like having one for a book that’s actually available — even if it is from one of the few authors whose books I buy automatically and will even pre-order.

  23. Off-topic, but I couldn’t let this one pass:

    And I don’t think that it is a coincidence that the first person to win two Nobel prizes (and the only person to win two in science-related fields) was Marie Curie.

    See also, John Bardeen and Frederick Sanger. Bardeen is my favorite Nobel laureate. People have coined the Bardeen ratio in his honor: the ratio of achievement to self-promotion, for which Bardeen may have the highest value on record. When he died, they interviewed his golf partner of several decades who said he was aware that Bardeen had some sort of job at the University of Illinois but not that he was a world-famous scientist and two-time Nobel laureate.

    Oh, that we had more of his kind in academia.

  24. Freaking amazing! I’m so excited to hear this and I’ve only just picked up The Eternal Sky books last week. I can’t wait to devour them!

  25. See also, John Bardeen and Frederick Sanger.

    Well, I’ll be dipped in liquid helium; that’s what I get for not triple-checking my sources!

    Thank you for the gentle correction!

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