This review turned out a bit rambly, but I’m too lazy to self-edit today, so I’m going to cut to the chase and place my overall opinion right up front for anyone who doesn’t feel like reading over a thousand words of enthusiastic rambling:
Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear is the best fantasy novel I’ve read all year, and you should read it too.
The setting of Range of Ghosts is a fantasy version of a place that vaguely resembles Central Asia around the time of the dissolution of the Mongol Empire. Now, there’s a lot more going on than that, and you don’t need any familiarity with that era to read this novel. This is not the “quarter turn to the fantastical” retelling of history you’ll find in the (excellent) novels of Guy Gavriel Kay.
Instead, it’s a fully realized secondary world fantasy, full of magic and magical creatures, that just happens to bear some resemblance to real-world history. Kay uses history as a building block; Elizabeth Bear uses it as a stepping stone towards something that’s purely fantasy and as full of sense-of-wonder as any novel I’ve read in ages.
The obvious touching point are the nomadic Qersnyk steppe people, fierce horse warriors who at one point, led by their Khagan, ruled over vast areas of the continent. As Range of Ghosts starts off, the Qersnyk empire is descending into civil war after the death of the old Khagan. So, not putting too fine a point on it, you can probably get away with thinking “Qersnyk” = “Mongol”.
Looking at the book’s map (oh, how I love fantasy books with maps) and reading on, you’ll immediately see a bunch of other possible parallels. There’s an area to the West called the Uthman Caliphate. There’s a Song Empire. There is, far off to the Northwest, a city called Kyiv. You can vaguely superimpose a map of Eurasia and find more than a few connections.
But again, Elizabeth Bear uses this semblance merely as a stepping stone towards a grand fantasy world full of magic and unique, fascinating characters. The story starts off with Temur, a young Qersnyk caught in the war between his uncle Qori Buqa and his brother Qulan, both heirs to the Khan of Khans. After suffering a near-fatal wound on the battlefield, Temur joins up with a band of refugees travelling across the steppes towards safety. Once, a hundred moons shone in the sky, one for every male descendant of the Great Khan, but now, slowly, those moons are disappearing as Qori Buqa eliminates possible contenders for the Khaganate.
Meanwhile, in the city of Tsarepheth, the Once-Princess Samarkar is recovering from an entirely different wound. She has chosen to undergo a dangerous surgery and become barren in order to have the chance of gaining magical powers. A power struggle that’s similar to the one on the Qersnyk plains is happening in Tsarepheth, as one of Samarkar’s half-brothers is set to gain his majority and grasp the throne.
And far away in a remote mountain fastness in the Uthman Caliphate, Mukhtar ai-Idoj, the leader of a deadly sect, is plotting how best to use and influence the political upheaval that’s spreading across the continent.
So. So far, all of this sounds like typical epic fantasy “the fate of empires lies in the balance” material, right? Well, it may be hard to believe that all of this political maneuvering, important as it is, takes a backseat to the rich, nuanced set of characters Elizabeth Bear presents here. Aside from Temur and Samarkar (who, if I may just say, is possibly my favorite fantasy character of the past few years), there is also the imposing tiger-warrioress Hrahima (trust me, you just have to read this), the fierce Qersnyk tribeswoman Edene, and that’s just listing the viewpoint characters. I have a list — a long list — of supporting characters who only appear in a chapter or two but who leave a stronger, longer-lasting impression than the leads of lesser novels.
The real strength of Range of Ghosts lies in the way the novel takes this set of characters, brings them together, and lets them interact. There’s banter. There’s adventure. There are daring escapes, great battles, subtle negotiations. There is, interestingly, a great amount culture shock as the characters travel across this rich fantasy world, encountering different landscapes and customs and leadership structures, comparing notes on personal beliefs and on the history of the world itself.
There’s also, incidentally, a constant re-positioning of the expectations you might have, and the characters themselves might have, about how gender relations in this type of fantasy world work. What’s maybe most impressive is that Range of Ghosts doesn’t hit you over the head with what’s arguably one of its central themes. It’s just there, presented as is. At one point after a battle, Temur thinks to himself how grateful he is that he had three strong warrior women with him. Range of Ghosts will make you reconsider what strength is, or maybe more accurately how many different kinds of strength there are, in a way that feels at once natural and unique.
And finally, maybe a minor note, but I’d be remiss not bringing it up: I love the way Elizabeth Bear writes about horses. I’m not an expert. I’ve barely spent a few hours on a horse, and that years ago. However, I tend to notice when someone writes horses in a considerate, knowledgeable way versus someone who maybe asked Medieval re-enactors some questions and checked some facts in a book. Elizabeth Bear’s horses feel real. One of them is practically a lead character by herself. (Her name, by the way, is Dumpling. Love it.) There’s only one author who, I feel, may have the same ability to write believably about horses in a way that will make the reader care about them, and that’s Janny Wurts. (If you know me or my reviews at all, you’ll realize that’s very high praise.)
So. It took me about 18 months from the release of Range of Ghosts (March 2012) until now to finally get around to reading it. During most of that time, many readers whose opinions I often agree with were practically imploring me to read it. I’d like to thank them for their persistence. It’s been more than worth it.
Early on in the novel, after being transported from all she knows to a new setting, a character muses that “she had fallen into a story.” That line also describes the experience of reading this novel: it’s a book you can sink into. It’s also that rare novel that feels longer than it is in a good way: barely 330 pages long in hardcover, it imparts the same sense of richness and immersion you’d expect from a doorstopper, but distilled into a tighter, more concentrated package. I cannot recommend Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear highly enough.