The Red-Stained Wings

Elizabeth Bear
The Red-Stained Wings Cover

The Red-Stained Wings


The Red-Stained Wings is a worthy new instalment in a rich, dense world

I have heard others speak of a legend. A form of reading lost to the mists of time; an elegant hobby for a more civilised age. They say that, in the time before there were Too Many Books that Need to be Read, the Readers were able to spend time between their must-read new titles, enjoying the same book a second... or third... or fifth... or eighteenth time. Yes, that's right, I have heard that once, readers could RE-READ books.

On hearing others speak of this concept, I retreat into being the charming, untrustworthy sceptic with little time for rediscovering lost arts as long as there's a blaster and a trusty ship (or an ereader and and a city's worth of bookshops) to hand. The Skywalkers can go off on their quests to rediscover the worlds they already immersed themselves in months or years ago, but my ever-growing pile of new books and sequels says I should focus on it and I'm quite happy moving on through these new adventures. Then I start in on The Red-Stained Wings, the second in Elizabeth Bear's Lotus Kingdoms series, and realise I'm right in the middle of an intricate plot which I have not held in my head for the last year, and for some reason books are not kind enough to help me out with a "story so far" summary. Which is to say, the review is due and security locks on the Rathtars just came loose and oh, hey, how're you going to bluff your way out of this one, Adri?

Luckily, the action of the Red-Stained Wings is not that hard to get back into, even for those coming into it less-than-perfect reviewing circumstances. Despite the focus on the blurb, the focus here is very much on two rajnis in very different circumstance: Mrithuri, the ruler of Sarathai-tia, the city around which most of the action takes place and which is now under siege from a "suitor" who wants to claim political power for himself; and Sayeh, whose own kingdom has been destroyed by natural disaster and who is now prisoner of that same suitor while her son is held captive by yet another rival. Sayeh is also considered "third gender": assigned male at birth, she identifies and is recognised as feminine by all other characters, goes by female pronouns and carried her son to term with some magical assistance. Her gender identity is commented on by other characters as an impediment to maintaining legitimacy in a patriarchal political environment (as is Mrithuri's), but none ever question the identity itself.

There's a great sense of momentum in The Red-Stained Wings, a feeling even more impressive for the fact that most of the political action in the book is centred around a siege (not generally the most dynamic of military actions). There's a balance between the sense of hopelessness in Mrithuri's camp as they wait for a literal deus ex machina in the form of God-given rains, while also attempting to take control of the situation they have found themselves in. The Gage's quest takes him across the desert to a land of dragonglass, which expands the worldbuilding into satisfying new territory. The "core" worldbuilding of the series continues to be a highlight, and although it feels like we get less of Bear's politicised astronomy (where heavenly bodies literally change according to what land you're in, from dual-sunned places where daylight never ends to country where the stars all correspond to dead leaders), the history and geography of the Lotus Kingdom in the context of the wider world always feels well-considered and real, giving weight in turn to the complex desires, motivations and machinations of the characters who populate it.