Elizabeth Bear, Range of Ghosts, ISBN 978-0765327543, Tor, March 2012.
Reviewed by Liz Bourke.
“Better a storm crow than a carrion bird.” Range of Ghosts, Elizabeth Bear
Range of Ghosts is the epic fantasy you’ve been waiting for your whole life.
This is a grand claim, I admit. For me, it’s a true one. When I finished Range of Ghosts, I felt as though an empty place inside me had at last been filled. Let me explain – no, let me sum up.
In the last decade and change, epic fantasy has rebelled against Tolkien and his inheritors, deeming world-saving quests lacking in realism. Bestselling epic today is dominated by ultra-grim hypermasculinism, as typified by George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie respectively. The trend towards grim “realism” removes a lot of the element of wonder that makes fantasy fantastical, and — I say this in all love, as a historian — a constant diet of torture, rapine, murder and unpleasantness is no more inherently realistic than soulmate dragons.
Range of Ghosts quietly sidesteps both Tolkien and Martin/Abercrombie, and proceeds to do its own third thing. What it is doing is full of wonder, worldbuilding grandeur, and fantastic Cool Shit™ — and also full of grit, emotional realism, and a light, ironic, humane sense of humour.
Temur is the grandson of the Great Khagan, who ruled the steppes from one end of the world to the other. Once, a hundred moons rose every evening with Mother Night into the steppes’ Eternal Sky, one for each of the sons and grandsons of the Khagan. Now Temur is an exile, fleeing the conflagration of civil war, and his iron moon is one of a scant handful. When Edene, the woman who would be his wife, whose family’s tents have taken him in, is abducted by the sorcerous allies of Temur’s usurper cousin, honour demands he go after her. In a sense, everything that follows is Temur’s coming of age.
But if it’s Temur’s coming of age, it is also that of the much older Once-Princess Samarkar, now become the wizard Samarkar, who has chosen
…to trade barrenness and the risk of death for the chance of strength. Real strength, not the mirror-caught power her father, his widow, her half-brothers, or her dead husband might have happened to shine her way.
It seemed a small sacrifice.
Her path — her discovery of her power, and her accommodation with her new life — comes to run alongside Temur’s. Joined by the tiger-woman Hrahima, they learn that a sect of the Uthman Scholar-God, the Rahazeen murder cult of the Nameless, is involved in the troubles that bedevil each of them, and in the war and upheaval that threaten all the nations along the Celadon Highway, from Messaline in the west to Song in the east. It is this sect, allied with Temur’s cousin, which has abducted Edene. Temur and Samarkar’s journey will lead them west, out from under the skies of their births, to the lands of the Uthman Caliphate – and even, perhaps, beyond.
Range of Ghosts has range and scope. Divine mediation is reflected in the sky: what gods your people follow — what gods have sovereignty over which lands — matters intensely, in an obvious but not intrusive fashion. Astrology, here, is less astronomy and more theology. It’s metaphysical. And really cool.
The world is vast and expansive. The characters are excellent: well-drawn, diverse, eminently believable. There are flying rukhs and cursed cities, haunted tombs and the restless dead. Gripping tension. Bear’s characteristic cut-glass prose. Powerful men. Strong women. Landscape.
I’ve nursed a secret love for vasty epic fantasy with maps since I began to read. It rarely finds worthy satisfaction. In Range of Ghosts it found more than satisfaction. It found fulfillment.
I recommend it wholeheartedly.