Bone, Fog, Ash & Star (2014), by Catherine Egan

Once again, I have reviewed this title simultaneously for Resource Links Magazine and this blog. I just didn’t want to wait any longer to have my opinion out there. The final book in such an excellent trilogy deserves better treatment than the length of time I have put this off already…

Egan - BoneI have been really almost frightened to read Bone, Fog, Ash & Star, the last of Catherine Egan’s The Last Days of Tian Di trilogy: what if it didn’t live up to the expectations set by the first two books? What if the author lets me down? What if there are loose ends, or manipulations to tie up those ends, or gratuitous character alterations to accommodate necessary plot developments… what if… what if… The more I like a series (or in this case trilogy), the more invested I am in the author’s narrative success: hence the trauma. I need not have worried.

Egan opens her second book, The Unmaking (2013), with the unlikely (but explicable) scene of ninja-Eliza in total stealth mode. The opening of Bone, Fog, Ash & Star similarly causes the reader pause: Eliza is flying through the air on the back of a great bird: “And then she let go” (1). We hope it is a dream sequence, but after the ninja, we are not so sure… The great bird turns out to be Eliza’s shape-shifting friend, Charlie, in gryphon form; Eliza is trying to see if her dreams are true, and she herself can transform into a raven. And so the reader is brought back, how ever long away, into the world of Tian Di and all that has happened to Eliza, the Shang Sorceress, in the previous few years (and two books). Just as we become comfortably reacquainted with Eliza and her world, inexplicably, Egan kills off one of her central characters: Charlie has become a target of the Thanatosi, a breed of assassin creature who, once commanded, will not rest until their prey is dead. The emotional impact on the reader parallels Eliza’s response (not surprisingly), and we read with bated breath as Eliza travels into Death’s domain and pulls Charlie back into the world of the living.

The social and emotional relationships between the characters lie at the heart of the plot, but are not the plot. The Mancers (in charge of magic in Di Shang) recognize Eliza’s affection for Charlie, but want to marry her to a Mancer, thus not diluting her bloodline further (Eliza herself is of mixed race due to her mother’s headstrong actions in this regard). So to stop the Thanatosi, Eliza must return to the Citadel of the Mancers… which sets the plot in motion.

Ultimately, the only thing that might stop the Thanatosi are the gathering of the four Gehemmis—bone, fog, ash, and star—gifts of the Ancients that are prophesized to bestow ultimate power on the one who rejoins them. So Eliza’s quest begins: she is off after the Gehemmis; Charlie and their friend Nell are taken to the Realm of the Faeries, where he might be safe; Eliza’s only Mancer ally, Foss, is banished with her from the Citadel and is slowly dying, away from the source of his life-energy. The three plots are woven together like a loose but intricately patterned fabric: we are following one narrative thread with great interest when all of a sudden we reach the end of that pattern, and find ourselves at the beginning of another. Egan has honed this technique admirably to leave readers gripped by all three plots at once: regardless of which we are following at the moment, we do not feel abandoned by the author, nor do we lose sight of the other characters’ positions. Tricky narrative weaving, well executed.

Far more than the first two novels of the trilogy, Bone, Fog, Ash & Star alludes subtly to the eschatology of the mythological underworld: in the ferryman who conveys travellers between Di Shang and Tian Xia; in the raging river that forms the barrier between Tian Di and the underworld; in the power relations that develop between the worlds and those who live in them. These power structures feed into the political machinations that Eliza has become increasingly embroiled in as the trilogy progresses; now, in the Last Days of Tian Di, she is forced to make very mature decisions… but she is still only a 17-year-old girl. The conflict between her child-like desired to save those she loves and the more altruistic space she should inhabit as the Shang Sorceress ultimately lies at the heart of the novel. There are intimations of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy in both the imagery and the conclusion to Egan’s trilogy, but without Pullman’s rather negative perspective on belief, free will, and human agency. I wept copiously at the end of Pullman’s trilogy, but I also felt betrayed, as if the author were presenting a vision of humanity that was missing some of what I know to be true. The Last Days if Tian Di is written for a younger audience, but even as an adult reader, I feel that the choices Eliza makes reveal a real human response to her world, at both the individual and the global level. Well done, Ms. Egan. What’s next?

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