Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear
Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear follows the story of two characters through what looks to be a sweeping saga about the collapse of an empire. The first is Re Temur, a young man who’s distant in the line of succession to the Great Khagan and never expects to hold much power. But the death of the great Khagan and the resulting civil war thrust him into the limelight. The second main character is Samarkar, disgraced ex-princess of Rasa. To save herself from getting executed by her brother, she goes into training as a wizard. When she is ordered by the head of the wizards to investigate a Rasan city that’s been destroyed by the civil war, Sarmarkar’s and Temur’s lives intersect.
What I liked best about the story was the setting. Bear introduces us to a world that’s deep and rich, and even goes so far as to explain how people’s clothes are tied on. (Isn’t that something you always wonder about fantasy princesses?) But even given that, she lays on the Fantasy Counterpart Culture a bit thick. So far to the east, further east than where any of the characters live, there’s this empire called Song – I see what you did there, that’s totally China but named after a different dynasty. Far to the west, there’s a city called Kyav where the people are as pale as mushrooms and grow beets. Could that possibly be Kiev?
I’m not sure why Bear decided to split the difference – why she didn’t give the societies in her book their familiar modern names or come up with entirely new societies. Are the changed names an excuse to add fantasy creatures to the story? Maybe Bear plans to change the course of history, and Temur is totally not going to turn out to be Kublai Khan?
One thing she did with her really-guys-this-isn’t-Asia is she reimagined Islam as form of goddess worship. Women don’t catch a break, though. In this world, they’re forced to stay in seclusion because they’re incarnations of the One True Goddess. This is very interesting and I can’t wait to see where she goes with it.
At first I thought Temur was a blithering idiot, but I developed a grudging respect for him over the course of the book. This mirrored Samarkar’s own feelings about him, so it might have been intentional. (But how long is it going to take him to figure out his horse is magical?) Samarkar was far and away the more interesting co-main character. I loved her complex feelings about taking the wizard’s path and the interplay between the wizarding community and the seat of the government. In fact, I would have been happy to read a book set entirely in Tsarepheth that was all about the political intrigues of the wizards. But this is like me complaining that I wanted ravioli when somebody serves me chicken.
In my opinion, the plot was the weakest part of the book. I prefer first books of trilogies to stand on their own as books. Range of Ghosts is a grand tour of places and people we’ll need to know for the rest of the trilogy, which is great as a beginning, but not as a book. And by the end of the book, I kid you not, we have a wizard, a fighter, an ex-cleric and a monk traveling around together. It is a testament to Bear’s writing skill that she makes this look good, but I am waiting to see when she will pull the plot out of Dungeons and Dragons territory.