Fantastic Reviews - Fantasy Book Review
Range of Ghosts cover Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

Tor hardcover - 334 pages
Copyright 2012
Cover Art by Donato Giancola

Book reviewed April 2013
Rating: 8/10  (Highly Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

          Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear won the very first bracket, the Winter 2012 bracket, of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books, and a wonderfully deserving winner it was.

Elizabeth Bear is still a fairly new author - her first novel Hammered appeared in 2005 - but it feels like she is a veteran of the field.  She has already published over twenty books, ranging between science fiction and fantasy in both series and stand-alone books, and she has won the Campbell Award for best new author and two Hugo Awards for her short fiction.

Range of Ghosts is the first in Bear's epic The Eternal Sky fantasy trilogy, drawing heavily on the history of the Mongol Empire.  As the story begins, the Great Khagan has died, and his descendants have fought a bloody battle over succession, the kind of civil war that actually fractured the Mongol Empire.  Temur, grandson of the Great Khagan, fought on the losing side for his brother.  Temur survived the battle only because he was so grievously wounded he was left for dead.  (I believe the character Temur is loosely based on Timur aka Tamerlane (1370-1405).)

Temur heads into exile along with other nomads and survivors of the fighting, and he soon falls in love with another refugee.  But while Temur has no political ambitions, his uncle still regards him as a potential rival for the throne and wants him dead.  The uncle calls on al-Sepehr, a powerful sorcerer who clearly has his own agenda, to eliminate Temur.  The sorcerer dispatches a group of ghost assassins, who abduct Temur's young lover Edene, and so Temur begins a quest to rescue her from the mountainous region called the Range of Ghosts.

Our second major viewpoint character is Samarkar, from the neighboring Rasan Empire.  Samarkar has willingly left her powerful family and undergone surgery leaving her barren, so that she may train to be a sorceress.  Sent to investigate reports of dark sorcery, Samarkar encounters Temur on his quest, and they undertake a journey across the continent together.

There is an awful lot to admire about Range of Ghosts.  Let's start with a powerful opening scene, which is a key to success in the Battle of the Books.  Range of Ghosts opens with Temur waking up badly injured among countless dead warriors scattered about the steppe.  This pulls us into the story from the outset.  We sympathize with Temur as he struggles to survive the next days, then gradually begins to ponder what future he can still lead.  Meanwhile, Bear maintains the dramatic tension with quick glimpses of the sorcerer al-Sepehr working against Temur.

The scenery and different cultures in the story are fascinating, with an Eastern flavor that put me in mind of Guy Gavriel Kay's superb novel Under Heaven.  Add to that a number of distinctive fantasy elements.  To take one of many examples, the moons in Temur's night sky represent the heirs to the empire's throne, with a moon disappearing any time one of the emperor's descendants is killed - but then all the moons disappear in favor of a single moon when Temur crosses over the border to a neighboring land.  Nearly every chapter has an interesting and unusual element like that, all of which combine to give the tale a wonderfully magical feel.

What's more, Bear displays marvelous flair in introducing these different fantasy elements.  She doesn't just tell us, for instance, that al-Sepehr is using black magic to summon the dead; through striking prose, she shows us al-Sepehr gazing into his book of dark spells:

        A book.  Or what could have been the ghost of a book, perhaps - its covers translucent gray, marked with letters white as bone; its binding rings silver; and every transparent page within etched with the gorgeous serpentine cursive letters and diamond-shaped accents of the dialect of ancient Erem.

        The glass covers chimed softly as al-Sepehr drew on a kidskin glove and opened them with infinite care.  Some of the page edges were chipped, and he was too well acquainted with the illness that followed when he let this dire old thing taste his blood.  One by one, he turned the crystal leaves, watching as transparent letters cut in transparent pages caught the sunlight.

        Every word twisted in his head and made his eyes ache and burn.  He found the page he wanted and settled down to study the spell inscribed therein.

To raise the enemy's dead and bind them to your bidding.

Bear's characterization is also very strong, particularly as to the two protagonists.  Samarkar is an intriguing character, a woman who does not seem power-hungry, yet she gave up a position in high society for power, to her ruthless brother's dismay.  Temur is also a most likeable young man - he gets a love scene that is not only beautifully written, but downright hot, because we are so happy to see something nice happen to him.  But the scene ends on a bittersweet note, as one of the moons in the night sky flares out, indicating that another of Temur's relatives has died.

          For most of Range of Ghosts the plot moves along nicely, with plenty of action but also effective hints of conflicts to come, between Temur and his uncle, Samarkar and her brother, al-Sepehr and another mysterious magical power.  The story does slow a bit toward the end, however, as Bear busies herself putting pieces in place for the sequel, The Shattered Pillars.  Notwithstanding that quibble, this is superb epic fantasy storytelling, and I eagerly await the next volume in the series.
Overwhelmed by all the review copies we were receiving at Fantastic Reviews, in 2012 we began a new format: the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books.  Every sixteen review copies we receive go into a March Madness-style bracket.  For the first-round matches, the reviewer reads 25 pages of both books and decides which book he or she most wants to continue reading.  Then for the second, the reviewer finishes 50 pages, then through page 100 for the semifinals, and page 200 for the finals.  (See the Fantastic Reviews Blog for updates on the current Battle.)
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Copyright 2013 Aaron Hughes

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Links to other Elizabeth Bear reviews, articles, and websites:
Elizabeth Bear - Wikipedia
Elizabeth Bear - author blog
RANGE OF GHOSTS by Elizabeth Bear | Kirkus
Locus Online Perspectives » Elizabeth Bear: Earthly Conventions

For information on more science fiction and fantasy books:
Denver Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club

This page was last updated - 15 April 2013