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Bear, Elizabeth: Range of Ghosts

Range of Ghosts (2012)
Written by: Elizabeth Bear
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Pages: 336 (Hardcover)
Series: Book One (Eternal Sky)

Why I Read It: When I first started reading Elizabeth Bear, her writing didn't grab me. Yet, I always found myself attracted to her stories, and while her writing didn't grab me in an emotional or visceral way, it's still very good writing, and over the years, I've found myself more and more admiring of her work. When Range of Ghosts was originally announced, though, I put it off: I wanted to get through the Elizabeth Bear books that I already had on my shelf! But for giggles, I put this on my birthday wish list, because I was really wanting to read it before the Hugo nomination period next year. A friend granted the birthday wish, so I read it as soon as I was able!

The premise: ganked from A powerful new fantasy from Hugo award–winning author Elizabeth Bear, Range of Ghosts creates a world both deep and broad, where a sorcerer-prince seeks world domination to the glory of his God.

Temur, grandson of the Great Khan, is walking 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.

Spoilers, yay or nay?: Nay. However, if you're in a hurry, just skip to "My Rating" to get the skinny. Everyone else, onward!

This book took a bit of time for me to get into. Part of that was the nature of any Bear book: it always takes me a while to understand the world I'm getting tossed into. It takes me a while to feel my way through it and understand what's happening. So there's that. But I was also reading at strange times, times when I'd get really sleepy. Any sleeping while reading this book, however, is totally the fault of the reader and not the book. Because in truth, once I found my footing and the plot starts solidifying, I found it to be a surprisingly quick read. Range of Ghosts seems to be set in an alternate world to our own. Secondary world, yes, but a secondary world that's heavily influenced by the language and cultures of our own. Bear seems to admit as much in her dedication and her acknowledgements, and it's interesting to see how everything develops, as I was often reminded of Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven, another alternate world/historical fantasy that's heavily based in this part of the world (in the case of Kay, it's 6th century China, whereas Bear's seems to chronicle the fall of the Genghis Khan empire, but what do I know? I didn't get near enough of this history in school to recognize what I'm looking at).

At any rate, one of the things that gave me fits while I was finding my footing were the names. Not because they were foreign names to me, but they so often started with the same letters, and that started really messing with my brain. There are two brothers whose names are the same but flipped: Songtsan and Tsansong! Minor quibble, but because it did mean I had trouble keeping characters straight until I got to know them, I feel obligated to point it out.

I found myself immediately fascinated by the Once-Princess Samarkar's story, her elevation to wizard status and what that means for her role in a predominantly male society, where women are essentially property. I loved working my head around the magic system and the implications of each wizard's sacrifice. If I had a favorite character, it would be her, though to be fair, Temur was utterly likable, despite being a babe-magnet. He might have a super-ugly neck scar, but women seem to keep falling at his feet.

His horse was quite the character herself, but unless my memory serves me wrong, the scene where the mare was in heat but still also in foal? Not accurate. Again, I could be wrong, but I grew up on a farm and we bred horses. Once the breeding sticks, mares don't go back in heat. So that scene was more than just a little weird for me, because the situation rang false (to say nothing of what actually happens in that scene. Seriously, WTH?).

There seems to be an odd fascination with pregnancy in this book. There are three women (well, females, since one of the pregnancies is a horse) that are pregnant during the course of this book, and I'm chewing on that piece of information. Range of Ghosts is, after all, the start of a new trilogy (series?), so I'm wonder what kind of symbolism or message might possibly be packed into these little details, if any. This book, as with all of Bear's work, are intensely fascinating to consider through a feminist lens. I don't have any conclusions, mind you, just observations. I'm waiting to see how things pan out.

And speaking of panning out, one thing I didn't quite get, short of making the usual fantasy assumption of world-domination for world-domination's sake, why is all of this happening? I may have not read as closely as I should have, but perhaps it has something to do with resurrecting a fallen god? Comments are welcome regarding this. I figure all will be revealed as the series progresses, but for this particular book, I felt I was rather being dragged along by the characters and the pages, without any real sense of destination. Even after finishing this book, I still don't know what the story is driving at. I can make some guesses…. hell, one might call this The Lord of the Rings of the Eastern World (there's a piece of jewelry that clearly is begging to be THE ONE RING; and one can also argue it's a story about a prince reclaiming his birthright to be king), so there's that to consider for future volumes.

The world-building, the setting, was particularly well done and vivid. I loved the differentiation between the Eternal Sky's, well, sky, and the sky everywhere else. That was a wonderful, cool detail.

My Rating: Good Read

While I wasn't emotionally engaged, once the story picked up and I got a feel for the characters and the world, it's a pretty compelling read. The world-building and magic feels unique for an epic fantasy (or at least unique to me), and it's not often you get epic fantasy influenced by the East, so that made it doubly fascinating. Elizabeth Bear is always a solid writer, and I managed to finish this book in three days, which is pretty impressive, considering that Bear tends to be one of those writers I have to take a wee bit longer with. Yay for extra time! But in all seriousness, I'm glad I got to read this now, so that I can give this fair consideration for the Hugo nominations. Anyone who'll be nominating needs to give this book a whirl. I'm looking forward to next year's sequel, Shattered Pillars.

Cover Commentary: I love this cover SO MUCH! It's just so pretty. I love the deep purple coloring, the lack of white washing, the sky in the background…. I feel like I discover something new every time I take a look at it. :)

Next up: The Gravity Pilot by M.M. Buckner


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 2nd, 2012 11:47 pm (UTC)
This sounds quite interesting. I'll set it on my to-read list. Thanks! :)
Dec. 3rd, 2012 12:24 am (UTC)
You're welcome! If you get a chance to read it, please share your thoughts!
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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