Friday, 15 June 2012

Book Review | Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

Once, one hundred moons rose every evening with Mother Night across the Eternal Sky. Once, there were one hundred sons and grandsons of the Great Haghan who ruled the steppes from one edge of the world to the other. Now, the flame of civil war is burning, and Temur's iron moon is one of only a handful remaining in the Eternal Sky.

Temur 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 fought each other 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.

"For a few hours, as he rode the bay and led the rose-grey into wooded glades now, he allowed himself to dream that he would rescue Edene and make her his wife and that they would live to an untroubled old age with all their children and her cousins and her cousins' children.
"It was a fantasy and he knew it. But he was soldier enough to know that such fantasies were all that carried men through the supposed glory of war." (p.91)
So muses Temur, not the sole survivor but one of a very few to live through a bloody battle between brothers at the outset of the latest novel by two-time Hugo award-winning author Elizabeth Bear.

But it's not always so easy to tell the difference between fantasy and reality, is it? Between memory and invention, I mean. To differentiate what we have ourselves experienced from what we have only imagined. It sounds simple, sure enough, but bear in mind that the mind is a minefield of deceiving appearances, of fanciful facts and factual fantasy.

At times, Range of Ghosts is a lot like that.

Let me explain what I'm bumbling on about.

I have a few folks out in South Africa: grandparents and aunts and an almost-uncle, all on my mother's side. The first time your Scotsman went abroad, in the literal rather than the literary sense, it was to meet this extension of my immediate family. The year after that - I must have been about 14 by this point - I went back to Johannesburg on my lonesome ownsome. It was that or bible camp. That said, I'd had an awesome time with my aunt and almost-uncle before, and methinks more of a good thing is good.

That summer was a formative one for me in many senses. That summer I started reading Dan Simmons, China Mieville and Arthur C. Clarke. That summer I learned, at length, about nanotechnology, genetically engineered supersoldiers and the trouble with faster-than-light travel. My almost-uncle was a complete geek, but a genuinely good guy - which is not to say the two are usually exclusive - and in retrospect, I took an awful lot from the time I spent in his company, under South Africa's scorching summer sun.

In that sort of weather, however, even the geeks come out of their caves occasionally. So it was, shall we say somewhat incongruously, that that summer also marked the first time in my life I'd ever ridden a horse, and a decade and change later, I've never experienced anything else quite like it. Somewhere in the savannah, you see - I no longer recall where, but it took days of driving to get there - I was installed without prior warning upon a palomino mare, and accompanied by a cadre of adults all across the desert plains at midday, to gape at the stark, red-rock outcrops that stretched beyond the barren horizon every which way.

At one point our company split into groups, and I assume I ended up with the advanced band of riders because my aunt and almost-uncle numbered amongst them - that would seem sensible; on my own I was hopeless - but somehow the day only got more mind-blowing. Beneath me a gentle animal became a beast, galloping to keep up with its own kind and mine as they raced on ahead. Shortcuts were taken... fences were flown over... heart-rates, on the whole, were dangerously raised. I have rarely in my life been so thrilled, and at the same time so very afraid for my life, as I was by that afternoon's antics.

I remember telling people about that day later in my life, and thinking, as the unlikely story unfolded from my baby-fat face, how surreal the experience had been. How terrifying and breathless. It seemed so absurd that for a fair while, I'd all but convinced myself it had been a fever dream, rather than something real.

Range of Ghosts is a lot like that, then. Hence the lengthy digression. Also: it has horses. Horses!

In fact, the first meeting in the narrative entire is between our main character, Temur - the son of the Great Khagan and heir apparent to the Qersnyk kingdom - and the gorgeous horse which in effect saves him from certain death. Bansh and Temur are two of the few survivors of an awful slaughter, wherein one brother warred against another for the very throne our man stands to inherit.

Blood followed on all sides, obviously, and lest his luck run out, Temur takes up with a broken but not beaten family of fellow refugees on the road "through the mountains called the Range of Ghosts to Celadon Highway city of Qeshqer. Away from the dead." (p.16) He seeks shelter with these decent people, and receives respite: a brief reprieve from the intolerable horrors of war, the comfort of kindly strangers, and perhaps the promise of love with one woman, Edene.

Alas, a happy ending is not to be had so simply for him, or her, or anyone in truth — not in this bleakly beautiful book. Because in Range of Ghosts, the fantastic first act of the Eternal Sky trilogy - and I suppose I should stress that it is only that: an opening act that does not even attempt to appear standalone - in Range of Ghosts, the dead do not rest until they have been blessed, and an army of these seething specters has been set on Temur by someone with dark designs on his hide. To wit, one night, under a many moons - for there is one for each of the living heirs to the Great Kaghan's kingdom - Temur's idyll ends with the same violence that presaged it. And though they maim or murder everyone else they touch, the ghosts - unable as they are to best our man, with salt on his sword - take Edene alive.

So we come full circle, back to Temur with the horses in wooded glades, confusing happy fantasy with harsh reality. In fairness he knows how unlikely it is that he will ever see Edene again, in one piece at least, but short of going back to the battlefield for vengeance - and he would have to raise an army of his own to do that - Temur's options are few, and ugly to a one... excepting the prospect of saving a damsel in distress.

However misguided his intentions, Temur's hopes are mostly noble, and ultimately it is this meandering rescue attempt - meandering because he has no idea where Edene's been taken - that leads Temur into Samarkar's path. And it is the character of Samarkar, I think, that elevates Range of Ghosts into a space shared with the genre's greatest rather than merely its latest.

There are a lot of interesting observations to be made about Samarkar, but - my bad - this review's gone long already, so suffice it to say that she's every bit as imperative to Range of Ghosts' sweeping narrative as Temur, if not more so, for he is a more traditional fantasy protagonist by far. Samarkar, on the other hand, is a woman so sickened by being manipulated by powerful men all her life - being a dutiful daughter, a dear sister and a willing wife has only brought down disgrace - that she has opted to give up her child-bearing capabilities in exchange for a chance to harbour magic. When Bear introduces us, she's recovering from said sorcerous surgery, waiting to see if her life can take on this meaning, in want of any other.

Samarkar is a fantastic character from the offing - beautifully put though the others are, hers were the chapters I looked forward to for the first hundred pages - and when she meets a feverish Temur, she becomes even greater. "He knew her because she lifted him up and set him on Bansh's back when he could no longer cling there by himself [...] and he knew her because after she had led him and the mares out of danger, she girded herself in her coat of night and her collar of stars and went back into the cold valley to seek Edene." (p.143)

In addition to illustrating Samarkar's strength of mind and body both, this enmeshing of narrative perspectives allows Bear to welcome several other POV characters into the fray, and it's as well that this width exists, because the least interesting act of Range of Ghosts is yet ahead. Temur and Samarkar's time in the city of Qeshqer has its moments, but I dare say they are waylaid there too long by preening and politics when Range of Ghosts is at its best exploring the glorious freedom of the road, and the ride. One senses this section has a vital part to play in the series' grander narrative, but in contrast with the sheer exuberance on either side of it, it becomes a bore. Nor is it particularly pleasant for our imperiled prince:
"The weight of the palace itself seemed to press down on Temur's chest, shortening his breathing and closing his vision to a tunnel. His people believed it ill luck to spill blood at an execution, and so they sewed criminals into leather bags and heaped stones upon them until they died. He knew this was not the same [...] but for the moment he imagined that each breath grew shallower than the last, his lungs exhausted with pushing out against all that stone." (p.221)
If Range of Ghosts ends at all, it ends with an exhalation: with a great gasp drawn quickly in, then pushed slowly out. Which is to say, Bear's latest earns the To Be Continued with which it concludes, and though some in this age of pseudo-standalone installments of ongoing series will find its lack of resolution positively abhorrent, I did not, and I expect that's suggestive of how winning this thing is. Certainly, I was left wishing I could read The Shattered Pillars immediately, but the wait won't kill me; indeed, its absence may make my heart grow still fonder, and I am awfully fond of Range of Ghosts as is. It's this year's Under Heaven, and from a dyed-in-the-wool Guy Gavriel Kay devotee like me, that's saying something.

A magnificent start, then, to a trilogy that could and should cement Elizabeth Bear's place amongst the greats. Miss it at your own risk.


Range of Ghosts
by Elizabeth Bear

US Publication: April 2012, Tor

Recommended and Related Reading


  1. I really like your description of this as a "first act". That's a wonderful phrase for that specific type of trilogy (or series) opening that just isn't standalone. I very well might borrow it for my own reviews...

  2. Thanks.

    This is my favorite book I've read to date this year.

  3. I first had the pleasure of reading Elizabeth Bear back on the Del Rey Digital online writing workshop, more than ten years ago now. She is incapable of writing a bad story, I'm fully convinced.

  4. So say I was seriously considering buying up Elizabeth Bear's entire back catalogue, and then - at the last second - cooler heads prevailed. What of Bear's is an absolute must? Is Range of Ghosts her best, or does she get still better?

    1. Well, it's a bit like going to a really fine ice cream parlor. It's all quality, but you're never going to like the rocky road because you can't abide those little marshmallows, no matter if it was made with the finest marshmallows of the Ecuadorean marshmallow tree.

      Bear does it for me best on the short story level, so my personal favorite is "The Chains That You Refuse" from night shade.

    2. Bear writes in a really wide range of sub-genres with science fiction and fantasy. I like it all, but tastes may vary.

      1. Short stories. Like Michael above, I love her these. However, Chains That You Refuse is out of print. She has another collection, Shoggoths in Bloom, coming in November.

      2. Bone and Jewel Creatures. This is a novella set in the same world as Range of Ghosts. It's one of my favorites of hers.

      3. The Edda of Burdens series. The first book is All The Windwracked Stars. Bear calls it peri-apocalyptic, norse noir steampunk. This is also one of my favorites, and if you like Range of Ghosts, this is probably where I would send you first.

      The Jenny Casey books are cyberpunkish. The New Amsterdam stories and novellas are steampunk vampire books. The Promethean Age books are urban fantasy of a sort. They involve the clash between the Fae and our world. The Jacob's Ladder books take place on a generation ship thousands of years after it left earth. A Companion to Wolves, co-written with Sarah Monette, is a feminist response to animal companion books, especially Anne McCaffrey's Pern books, and especially the way McCaffrey handles sex. Carnival is a science fictional dystopia. Undertow is a science fiction book with a caper plot.

      I do recommend them all. Happy reading!

    3. The Edda of Burdens trilogy it is, I think. And I'll get my order in for this forthcoming collection as well.

      Thanks again for the advice, everyone. :)