Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Range of Ghosts Book Review

by the Wanderer
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Series: Eternal Sky Book One
Pages: 334

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Range of Ghosts is the first installment in Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky Trilogy. This is a story about two outcast members of the nobility from two different cultures coming together to save the world.
Elizabeth Bear creates a strong set of characters and tells a fairly straight forward but engaging story.  The strength of this book, though, lies in its world building which borrows from the geography and cultures of the Asian Steppes.  Stylistically it reminds me of the world building you would expect to find in a novel by Guy Gavriel Kay.

Range of Ghosts is a promising beginning to a series, one that’s as great as the author’s last name (We really like Bears at ATG).  Ardent fantasy fans will certainly appreciate it.

Temur of Khaganate has just survived a battle that saw the sacking of the greatest city in his grandfather’s empire. He must head into exile before his enemies catch him.

Once-Princess Samarkar is completing her initiation into the Citadel of Tsarepheth where she hopes to become a wizard.  By doing so she completely renounces her claim to ruling the Rasan Empire, a land she was once going to inherit.

Samarkar and Temur will eventually come together to battle a cult that is carefully orchestrating a war that will set the major powers of the region against one another.

The artwork on the front of this book is mesmerizing. The cover art has forced me to look at the book for five minutes before I can begin reading … it’s happened every single time I’ve picked it up. Once I do start reading, Elizabeth Bear makes it easy to keep myself interested in the story.

The best part about this book is the world building.  Bear draws historical inspiration from the Mongols, Kievan Rus, the Song Dynasty in China, and the Ottoman Empire.  Geographically the map bares a lot of resemblance to the Middle East and Western Asia. The cultures she’s created have their own belief systems and languages.  The latter is something I was really glad to see, as most fantasy novels try to work differences of cultures without acknowledging the fact these different cultures would probably not be speaking the same language.

Struggling to communicate with one another seems to be a common motif in this book.  Temur and Samarkar are only vaguely familiar with each others’ languages and so they can only communicate at a very basic level.  As they meet other people from different cultures, the communication issues become even more complicated.  This is but one example of the detail in the world building.

Temur and Samarkar’s targeting of the puppet masters, rather than the puppet rulers makes for an engaging plot.  The cast of side characters they meet are also interesting: Temur’s friend Edene is not afraid to fight, Samarkar’s tutor Tsering provides great working knowledge of magic, and Hrahima is a giant talking, magical, multilingual tiger. Temur naming his horse Dumpling was just as funny as watching him explain that name choice to the people he meets.

A lot happens in the short duration of a few hundred pages. At times I found myself wishing for some more elaboration about the travels of the characters.  It feels like the plot is being rushed, the ending definitely felt sudden, but on the positive end of that I did want to read more.  All the major characters get along with each other unconditionally, something I wasn’t expecting considering we’re dealing with so many different cultures and belief systems.  Typically these issues create conflicts – look at the world we live in today – but in Bear’s world there just weren’t many internal conflicts for our protagonists.

There were issues with the prose, too.  When Elizabeth Bear is on, she is on.  Descriptions, they way she writes animals, and even the action scenes are all handled well.  But every now and then you stumble across passages that just don’t seem to work.  Many of these occur when the main characters engage characters outside their group.  The narration can get awkward, and it’s not due to the language gaps between the different cultures, it just doesn’t seem to read right.

People who enjoy great world building, especially world building inspired by history, or people who are fans of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels or epic fantasy will probably find a lot to like here.  Range of Ghosts is an excellent story.

Score: 8.7

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