A reviewer could easily describe Range of Ghosts, the first book in the ETERNAL SKY series, as typical high fantasy: a team of unlikely heroes assembles in order to fight a rising evil empire, while simultaneously restoring the rightful heir to the throne and engaging in romantic hijinks. That reviewer might remark that Elizabeth Bear used the Eurasian steppe as her setting, rather than some species of the Shire, and leave it at that. But that reviewer would be a very dull person indeed, and utterly without the high-hearted nature required to truly love the fantastical. That reviewer might want to spend time with the man who called Star Wars nothing but “bits and pieces of westerns, swashbucklers, and sundry adventure genres” in 1977. It might be made of familiar bits and pieces, but they reform themselves into something entirely new.
We begin with Re Temur stumbling across the human wreckage of a battlefield. Temur is the grandson of the Great Khagan who ruled the Mongol Empire. In this world, each one of the Khagan’s hundreds of sons and grandsons has his own moon hanging in the sky, but now the moons are disappearing in vicious familial infighting. As he curls up to sleep against a dead horse on the endless battlefield, Temur thinks:
This — this was how empires ended. With the flitting of wild dogs in the dark and a caravan of moons going dark one by one.
On the strength of that one line — which is bleak but so compelling, a piece of succinct world-building which sucks the reader down beside Temur on the battlefield, watching the moons go dark and his grandfather’s empire disintegrate — I ordered the next book. But there are more than a few good lines here. Very quickly, a whole slew of characters and cultures come nimbly into the story. First, Temur gets his horse (or Horse, really), a noble creature which he names Dumpling. Then he gets his lady, a quiet and tough-minded horsewoman named Edene. Then we switch abruptly to a different civilization, where a widowed once-princess named Samarkar is becoming a Wizard. The rest of the book is a rolling series of adventures, beginning with Edene’s kidnapping by a mysterious ghost-horde. Temur and Samarkar form an alliance with many purposes: to investigate the existence of the ghost-horde, to rescue Edene, to avoid the various assassins coming for Temur, and perhaps casually reconquer the steppe in Temur’s name.
Range of Ghosts is what I always want high fantasy to be, and what it rarely is. It’s adventurous but not staged, it’s serious but not gloomy, it’s socially intelligent without being capital-P Political, it’s built on myth and history but doesn’t get bossed around by them. It’s succinct (do you hear me, writers of multi-volume sword-and-sorcery series?). Perhaps even more rarely, it’s written in a spare-yet-muscular style that renders even the most tired tropes tolerable. There’s something about the aesthetic that feels very Zhang Yimou — particularly the scene when a blind monk tending to the dead is suddenly swept by tens of thousands of scarlet butterflies, emerging from the lips of each corpse.
Elizabeth Bear’s use of Central Asian history is also more interesting than it first appears. At first it seems like a crutch — the kind of world-building cheat code that relies on the cultures and politics of the past, and then changes all their names a half-step to the left. Not only is that creatively unsatisfying, it can result in some really tasteless caricatures of real pasts and peoples (versions of samurai and, lord help me, Ronin, seem particularly vulnerable). Bear’s world is certainly borrowed — the Great Khagan is probably Kublai Khan, Timur is a kid-friendly version of Tamerlane, Song is China partially under Mongol control, the Qersnyk are Mongols, and the Uthman Caliphate is the Islamic Middle East — but she builds whole new cities on her borrowed turf.
Perhaps the best pieces of Bear’s imagined history are the magical-spiritual realms. It’s wonderfully wild and new. There are some familiar beings (rocs and ghosts) mixed with some excellent newcomers (Cho-tse, the tiger-people, and gut-worms, giant gooey grubs that haunt graves). More intriguingly, each culture has a different sky. The Qersnyk sky has its dozens of moons and its Eternal Sky. The Uthman Caliphate has a sun that rises in the wrong place. The farther the characters wander from home, the more alien skies they see. It’s wonderfully refreshing to see a combination of magic and history that’s more than oh-but-they-can-also-shoot-fireballs, or the casual addition of gods who stomp around in things.
The characters fit well into their worlds, without any jarring twentieth-century sensibilities or unlikely ideas. Samarkar, the princess-wizard, was by far my favorite. Partly, I’m just refreshed by a female main character who isn’t young, sexy, and swinging an implausibly large sword. Samarkar is many unusual things in high fantasy. She’s older than Temur, and quite a bit more politically intelligent. She’s a widow. She’s no longer even a princess, since she forsook her political power for magical ones. She’s barren. She’s not beautiful, but powerful. There’s a scene I particularly loved, when Samarkar first visits her royal relatives wearing her black wizard’s robes:
She saw herself like a shadow among the jeweled and flowered ladies… She saw herself — again — as a dark, predatory raptor, waiting in the midst of jeweled cage-birds. She was surprised the comparison pleased her.
I want more heroines like Samarkar. Women who navigate the world and its ways with grace and dexterity, who find their own power, who forge themselves into new and stronger shapes. Women who rescue. Women who wield things other than edged weapons or sexuality. I could also stand a few more characters like Hrahima, the bipedal tiger working as some kind of mercenary-spy. Hrahima is a lovely, dangerous monster. She’s could also eat Temur and all his warrior buddies for breakfast without undue difficulty, but abstains in adherence to her own twisty spirituality. Combined, Samarkar and Hrahima quietly undermine Temur’s centrality as the Great Male Hero charging off to make war. At one point Temur offers clumsy comfort to an old woman about her missing son:
“He could be in Song, or he could be just about anywhere. But if his moon still shines, he is alive. And that is the best we can hope for in these times.”
He sounded so young, so naïve, that Samarkar hid a smile. It’s quite refreshing to see the noble hero through the older, wiser eyes of a woman.
Range of Ghosts is like that: familiar pieces seen in new ways. The real world refracted into new and more colorful shapes. Recognizable characters glimpsed from different angles. It’s classic quest, but a damn fine one.