Elizabeth Bear – Range of Ghosts

I’m voting for the Hugo Awards this year (for the first time – yay!) and, in order to make informed decisions, trying to catch up on some of the best 2013 titles. This, however, means that I sometimes have more than one volume of a series to catch up on. But Elizabeth Bear has been on my finally-read-something-by-that-author list for a while, so I gladly dove into this epic fantasy.

range of ghostsRANGE OF GHOSTS
by Elizabeth Bear

Published by: Tor, 2012
Ebook: 336 pages
Series: The Eternal Sky #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Ragged vultures spiraled up a cherry sky.

Temur, grandson of the Great Khan, is walking away from a battlefield where he was left for dead. All around lie the fallen armies of his cousin and his brother, who made war to rule the Khaganate. Temur is now the legitimate heir by blood to his grandfather’s throne, but he is not the strongest. Going into exile is the only way to survive his ruthless cousin.
Once-Princess Samarkar is climbing the thousand steps of the Citadel of the Wizards of Tsarepheth. She was heir to the Rasan Empire until her father got a son on a new wife. Then she was sent to be the wife of a Prince in Song, but that marriage ended in battle and blood. Now she has renounced her worldly power to seek the magical power of the wizards. These two will come together to stand against the hidden cult that has so carefully brought all the empires of the Celadon Highway to strife and civil war through guile and deceit and sorcerous power.

If I had aspirations of becoming a fantasy writer, I would immediately re-read this novel (and probably soak up anything else by Bear). It is an example of superb world-building, without leaning on the crutch of Tolkien or medieval European folklore for support. Whew… this needed to be said first.

Sometimes I find it hard to write a review because I just don’t have that much to say about a book. Here, the reverse is the case. It may only be 336 pages strong, but Range of Ghosts is so full of detail that either I want to tell you about everything, or I restrain myself and become so vague, nobody will understand what I’m saying. This story is set in Central Asia but it is definitely Epic Fantasy. There are kindgoms at war with each other, palace intrigues, wizards, and a sinister cult that can raise the ghosts of dead men to fight their battles…

range of ghosts2As well you know, characters are what makes or breaks a novel for me, so let me tell you a bit about the amazing people Elizabeth Bear has created for this story.
Temur, although I liked him well enough, remained a bit distant throughout the story. He wakes up on a terrible battle field, the only survivor among his dead friends and family. But when another survivor, a steppe pony, finds him, a beautiful friendship evolves. The pony, lovingly called Bansh (dumpling) isn’t only a loyal travel companion, she also kicks serious ass in battle. Who would have thought?

The other protagonist is Samarkar and she is a heroine to my liking. We meet her just after her initiation into the citadel of the wizards of Tsarepheth. That means, she just had her womb taken out and left behind her worldy possessions as well as her title of princess of the Rasan Empire. After a failed marriage that ended mostly in blood, Samarkar wants to be a wizard rather than stay at the palace among spies and liars and conspirators.

As the story starts, Temur and Samrkar already have things going on in their life. They are dealing with their own problems, their lives don’t begin with the events told in Range of Ghosts. This lends them an extra layer of believability. But when Temur’s girlfriend Edene is kidnapped by ghosts, that was the moment when I was sucked in and couldn’t stop reading. Edene may not be happy about her fate but instead of waiting for her boyfriend to rescue her, she watches and listens, and devises her own plans to break out of her prison.

Female characters in general are portrayed beautifully. It’s impossible to imagine Samarkar “settling down” with a husband and children, or Edene waiting in a cell, praying for her loved one to come save her. When Temur and Samarkar meet, and are later joined by the tiger-woman Hrahima, it is not Temur who naturally takes on the role of leader. Knowing that he isn’t as strong as either of the women, he is fine following Samarkar’s lead. At night, when Hrahima is the only one who can see properly, she becomes their leader. It’s a beautiful dynamic and a bond of friendship that was a pleasure to read.

range of ghosts1

But, as I blurted out above, most of my praise goes to the world building. Elizabeth Bear does this so well that, while you’re reading, you don’t even notice how she feeds you tidbits about this culture or that, one custom or another, but when you put the book down for a bit and think about it, there is this vast knowledge of a fictional world that seems to have come out of nowhere. There is no clunky exposition, the world building never bogs down the plot, the pacing is never off. I am simply in awe.
And she gets extra brownie points for not having everyone speak the same language. Hrahima has to say everything twice so both Temur and Samarkar understand. Both only have rudimentary knowledge of the other’s language and, yes, they have to painstakingly learn in order to communicate properly.

Bear does all of this effortlessly (I assume it wasn’t really, but it gives that impression) and delivered a nice little twist of the knife right at the end that will make it impossible for me to stop reading the series now. Needless to say, I’ll check out Shattered Pillars before the Hugo deadline, as I suspect it will be a book to be reckoned with.

8/10  –  Excellent