Review of Beneath a Brass Sky

So last month I mentioned that fellow author Eli Steele had put out a new story called Beneath a Brass Sky. I finally had time to sit down and read it, and let me just say that the book blew me away! If you have a chance you should check it out, the story reads like Cormac McCarthy without all the pretentiousness:

Beneath a Brass Sky by Eli Steele

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tamarisks and amaranth clustered around shallow depressions where maybe water once pooled. Maybe one day it would again. Or maybe they too would pale away. Here began a land of dead and dying things.

I don’t often have trouble describing a book that I’ve read in concrete terms, but for weeks now I’ve grappled with how exactly to put my thoughts about Beneath a Brass Sky into words. Was this literary fiction written with a brush of fantasy to it, or a fantasy novel written as an ode to the lyrical roots from whence the genre came? Was this a low-fantasy western without the guns, or a high-fantasy epic told so subtly that its magic and mysticism were but a hint upon a breeze that had already passed me by? Was this a good book? Was it enjoyable? Did it leave me changed in small ways that I’m only just beginning to comprehend?

Actually, I can answer those last three, because the answer to all of them is one and the same: Yes, yes, and yes.

This is the story of the mercenary Ulfric Halehorn, twice a deserter and far from the lands of his birth, and yet this story isn’t about him. This is the story of Spero, a banker who is both more and less than he seems, who tasks Ulfric’s company with transporting the bank’s interests across the great and savage Brasslands—but this story isn’t really about him, either. This is the story of the Huntsman, a peacekeeper who is the most dangerous, terrible thing in the world: an evil man who believes himself righteous. Though the story isn’t really about him either, of course.

Rather, this is a story where the journey is as important as the destination, and world itself is as much a character as those that live their lives upon its surface. The Brasslands, which appear modeled much after Africa and the Middle East here in our own world, have a personality that despite their inspiration is entirely their own, one that changes from moment to moment, page to page. Be it endless wastes of sand, or fields of fire and smoke, or places where short grasses and hyenas play, this is a world that felt as vibrant and real as the people crossing it.

And the characters truly were vibrant. Halehorn is driven by his past decisions, haunted by the tragedies that he’s witnessed, and guilt-ridden by the choices he did or didn’t make. With each step in their journey, some of his history or personality was peeled back, revealing another layer, and I was always eager to see what the next turn or bend brought for him and Spero. Sometimes danger, sometimes revelation, and sometimes—all too rarely—a bit of joy.

In the end, this book was not at all what I expected when I picked it up, but I’m so glad I did. It was dark, and brooding, and at times forced me to look at the most depraved aspects of humanity. Yet I wouldn’t give up that journey for anything in the world. This is a book for lovers of fantasy who demand more out of their stories than simply heroes and magics and warring nations. For while all those things are present here, they are subtler, more refined, more… real.

This is fantasy as I imagine Cormac McCarthy might write, though thankfully lighter on the symbolism and the endless description. Steele is not McCarthy; thankfully he is his own thing entirely, and his book is literary fantasy as I want it to be. This is a story of tragedy and triumph, of death and life and rebirth. This is is the tale of what it means to be Beneath a Brass Sky.

Where prayers go unanswered, and cries go unheard, and people deserve better, but never is it so.

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