Range of Ghosts, by Elizabeth Bear
I finished reading this book several weeks ago, and I’ve been trying to figure out how best to review it. I keep coming back to “thoughtful.” Everything from the worldbuilding and mythology to character to sentence and word choice.
The book opens to Temur, heir to the Khaganate, stumbling through a battlefield. His hand has gone numb from clasping the bloody gash along the side of his neck– You know what? Let me just give you a few paragraphs from the first page.
Beyond the horizon, a city lay burning.
Having once turned his back on smoke and sunset alike, Temur kept walking. Or lurching. His bowlegged gait bore witness to more hours of his life spent astride than afoot, but no lean, long-necked pony bore him now. His good dun mare, with her coat that gleamed like gold-backed mirrors in the sun, had been cut from under him…
He walked because he could not bear to fall. Not here, not on this red earth. Not here among so many he had fought with and fought against.
And then you have Samarkar, who fled her home and gave up her title for the hope of becoming a wizard.
When the news of the fall of Qarash reached Tsarepheth, the Once-Princess Samarkar did not even know that a woman in red and saffron robes sat alongside her, because on that day Samarkar lay drowsy with poppy among rugs and bolsters in her room high up in the Citadel of wizards. Silk wraps wadded absorbent lint against a seeping wound low in her abdomen. When she woke–if she woke–she would no longer be the Once-Princess Samarkar. She would be the wizard Samarkar, and her training would begin in truth.
She had chosen to trade barrenness and the risk of death for the chance of strength.
One thing I think both of these introductions capture is the complexity of Bear’s writing. Wizardry isn’t a simple thing; you pay a price, and there’s no guarantee you’ll gain the power you hope for. We meet Temur as his dreams of battle and glory have been shattered by reality. In many stories, we see characters who change by the end of the tale. In this book, we meet characters already in flux, scared and confused and struggling.
I should mention the plot too, right? Okay, let’s see … we’ve got warring kingdoms and dark magic and gods and armies of ghosts and tiger warriors and kidnapped lovers and a journey over a fascinating world.
The world is one of my favorite parts of the books. This is a world where the sky literally changes depending on the nature of the kingdom below. In Temur’s land, there are moons for every heir, including himself. He looks up at the night sky to see which of his cousins have died based on how many of those moons have vanished. And then, later, he crosses into another land, and his family’s moons are nowhere to be seen. I love it.
Bear also does a wonderful job on her horses. I’m no expert, so I can’t say if she got every detail right, but she certainly avoided the “Horses = medieval motorcycles” mistake some epic fantasies fall into, and Temur’s new mare Bansh is one of the best characters in the book.
I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone looking for a quick read. Thoughtful writing requires thoughtful reading, and I couldn’t zip through this one the way I do some books. But if you’re looking for more complex, non-Western epic fantasy, I’d definitely suggest checking it out.
I will note that this is book one of a series, so you shouldn’t go in expecting things to be all wrapped up by the end.
You can read an excerpt at Tor.
Range of Ghosts comes out on March 27.
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