Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear
|Book Name:||Range of Ghosts|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook|
|Release Date:||March 27, 2012 (US) April 4, 2012 (UK)|
RANGE OF GHOSTS nails a lot of fantasy fundamentals: the world building is stellar, the characters are strong and layered, the prose is both precise and poetic, and the plot is compelling, completing its own story while also setting up the pieces for the other two books of The Eternal Sky trilogy. And if that weren’t enough, Bear goes for bonus points, locating her story in a non-Western setting and giving readers a master class on female characters (a recent topic of conversation among fandom).
When a book has been recommended to me over and over again, I worry that my friends might be setting the bar too high, and I will be doomed to disappointment. I shouldn’t have worried. Bear clears the bar. Heck, no matter how high it might have been set, Bear would have soared over it. This is a fun, beautiful, and thoughtful book. I waited too long to read it, and you shouldn’t wait any longer.
The story begins with Temur, grandson of the Great Khan who once ruled an empire that spread across a wide steppe, ensuring peace along a trading route. If this seems familiar, so will the map on the inside cover. The steppe, the desert, and the seas—they will all remind you of the Near East. But trust me, this world is not like ours. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to Temur. A civil war rages. Clan is killing clan, and the empire has fallen. Temur’s brother is dead, and his uncle is making a play at ruling. So Temur flees, finding safety among refugees. At least until an army of ghosts attacks, kidnapping Edene, a woman who is a prince’s equal in many ways, and better in others.
This is also the story of Samarkar, a widowed princess who chose barrenness and risked death just for the chance—the chance!—of obtaining true strength and power through knowledge and magic : things that couldn’t be taken away when her father names another heir.
And this is also the story of Hrahima, a tiger-woman warrior messenger. And yes, there are also wizards, monks, gods, royal families, and mythical beasts. But what impressed me most about Bear’s writing was that she has written fully developed, layered characters that have strong motivations, wounds, and secrets. These are characters from different empires, with different cultures, mythologies, histories, and interests. And this provides each character with a perspective, set of idioms, and language that made them distinct, interesting, and a pleasure to read.
And since I’ve already called it out, I should mention that Bear has written wonderful female characters who are not simply ass kickers or love interests or sexpots or rape victims. These are women who are fully realized, possess agency, and are in control of their sexuality. Even Edene, who gets kidnapped by an evil priest of a deadly god, and who, in the hands of a lesser author would exist only so Temur could rescue her, fights back against her captors.
And let me also circle back to the world building. Yes, the map will look familiar. And there is quite a bit of realism and authenticity in this world. For example, Temur’s people are horse people, and by his actions we can see his love for horses, how he looks after them and they him. But there is also plenty of creativity here as well. As people move from empire to empire, the sky changes at the border. Under the sky of Temur’s people, there is a moon for every heir to the throne. When they enter the territory of an unknown foe, the sky is a strange color and the sun moves at an unfamiliar angle. Like her characters, Bear describes her world with economic prose—she uses only a few words, but each and every word carries a lot of weight, painting a deep and detailed image with only a few sketches. And this isn’t to say that Bear’s prose is sparse or simplistic. It’s beautiful and romantic poetic and funny.
My only criticism of RANGE OF GHOSTS is the ending. It helps that I know this is the first book in a trilogy. There is a lot of setup for the later books, and while this larger, overarching plotline is compelling, and I’m eager to read books two and three, the ending of book one suffered for it. It felt a little weak to me: more of a pause or intermission than a full-fledge conclusion that stands on its own.
But that’s a small criticism of what is otherwise a terrific novel that sat far too long in my “To read” mountain of books. I don’t think I’ll be making the same mistake with SHATTERED PILLARS and STEELES OF THE SKY.