Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Sea Thy Mistress, by Elizabeth Bear

The Sea Thy Mistress
Elizabeth Bear
Tor: 2011

The Sea Thy Mistress is filled with pain. The novel is a sequel to *both* All the Windwracked Stars (review) and By the Mountain Bound (review). Elizabeth Bear’s The Edda of Burdens is an unconventional trilogy, one where the second novel is set some two thousand years before the first. The third, fifty years after the first novel. Yet, The Sea Thy Mistress is a true sequel to each novel, continuing and finishing the story arcs began in each. The pain of the characters here is old, decades and millennia, but still sharp and cutting.

While The Sea Thy Mistress can stand on its own as a novel, on the off chance that someone picked it up without knowing about the two previous volumes, the characters and the motivations and the pain gain so much more context when considered as part of a larger narrative whole. Likewise, the novel loses so much emotional resonance if read without All the Windwracked Stars and By the Mountain Bound. In the context of the first two novels, the names Muire and Heythe have power and meaning. There are stories and heartaches and tragedies all tied together in those two simple names, which is an overlong way to say that readers do themselves and this novel a disservice to enter cold into the story of The Sea Thy Mistress. The discussion that follows assumes prior knowledge of the series. 

The story here is, more or less, twofold. It has to do with what the reader knows and some of the characters do not. The first is of Cathoair (All the Windwracked Stars), now one of the waelcryge and raising his and Muire's son, Muire, who is now the serpentine Bearer of Burdens and restoring the world and far is beyond “simple” concepts like mortal and immortal. Cathoair's story is of overcoming his pain, pain and memory beyond even the loss of Muire. This is the story of a man grown finding a way to process trauma. It is no simple thing. It is far more difficult than facing an enemy. The specter of Muire looms over the entire novel, but especially over Cathoair and Cathmar (their son).

The other half is the reader's assumed knowledge of what Heythe's arrival in this time means.

Which means thinking on Heythe. Goddess, lover, monster, betrayer. The most subtle thing the wolf has met in a long and terrible life, and he has known a great many gods and monsters. Heythe the seeress, Heythe the world-killer.

Heythe, the returned. (pg 28)

As much as a presence that Muire has on The Sea Thy Mistress, so does Heythe. Heythe is more on the page in this novel than Muire, but is a shadowy figure, concealing her identity and her purpose. Readers of By the Mountain Bound will know deep inside just how scary and dangerous Heythe is, but the new reader won't. She's a shadow figure, with only Mingan the Wolf carefully working against her in his fear and shame. But then Mingan himself is a much richer character if one knows his history and failures.

But then, that's really what the heart of The Sea Thy Mistress is. It is overcoming shame, failure, and frailty. It is the so difficult personal acceptance of self and identity with eyes open. This is played out with a conflict looming. It's just that the looming and necessary conflict with Heythe is plot, it isn't the story. The story is on the inside.

The Sea Thy Mistress is an achievement for Elizabeth Bear. Readers of her work know just how good she is at creating rich characters with strong personal stories beyond the actions of moving from place to place and overcoming Obstacle A. Her Promethean Age novels are excellent examples of this. But here, Bear has outdone herself. She works with the core of the threat of Heythe finishing what she started (and thought she had finished), with characters who aren't truly prepared for someone of Heythe's magnitude, but the story she tells...it is raw with pain and scarring and shame and healing. Bear was already very good at telling stories dealing heavily with the internal and emotional lives of her characters, stories that wound and break the heart. With The Sea Thy Mistress, she just got better. This is one of Bear's best, and that is very good indeed.

Reading copy provided courtesy of Tor Books.

Previous Reviews

Blood and Iron
Whiskey and Water
Ink and Steel
Hell and Earth
New Amsterdam
Seven for a Secret
A Companion to Wolves
All the Windwracked Stars
By the Mountain Bound


Chad Hull said...

Oh this is just dirty... Hyping things up that we can't even read for weeks to come.

I remember reading your review for All the windcracked stars a while back. Now that the series is done I think it's time I sit down and read it.

Mark Lawrence said...

Nice review - I should pick up some Bear!

Joe said...

You absolutely should!

Both of you.

Anastasia said...

I need to read this, like, NOW.