Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I've been following Elizabeth Bear on twitter since I started listening to the Hugo-Award-winning SF Squeecast. It occurred to me how odd it was to follow an author whose books I'd never read, so I set about fixing that. I picked up Range of Ghosts at the library because it's the start of a series, and a recent one. It seemed as good a place to start as any.
Range of Ghosts takes place in a fantasy world setting that seems roughly analogous to Tibet and the surrounding region. I know little of the geography and history of the area, so I'm sure there were geographical references I missed.
The story follows Temur, who wakes up on a battlefield with a wound that should have killed him. He's alone, but for a horse he finds miraculously alive. Meanwhile, in another part of the world, Samarkar recovers from a hysterectomy, a necessary step for all those who want to devote their lives to magic. She knows it's a risk, that she may not have any magic, but she's had plenty of time to think through the consequences.
Temur, who's the rightful inheritor of rule of his land, is taken in by a clan of nomads who don't know who he is. All seems peaceful and right until the ghosts of those who died on the battlefield come after him, and kidnap Edene, his lover. He has to cross the mountains to go after her. Samarkar finds him outside a city completely empty of people. He's deathly ill. She tends to him and gets him somewhere safe. On the way, they pick up Hrahima, a Cho-tse warrior who looks like a tiger on two legs. Soon, they're wrapped up the politics of Samarkar's country, and fleeing Samarkar's brother, the king.
The story is told through Temur's and Samarkar's perspectives, with a side plot told through Edene's eyes or that of Mukhtar ai-Idoj, a religious leader who's trying to manipulate matters for his own purposes. It's always clear whose head we're in; the language and attention to details changes with each character. Temur is used to open spaces, and feels claustrophobic in cities or buildings, while Samarkar is accustomed to life in Court and its social niceties, so she pays attention to how people interact.
The worldbuilding in this book is unbelievably intricate. The world is populated with a diverse range of people. Nations are marked not only by borders on a map, but by their different skies. Temur's land is marked by moons representing those with royal blood. The disappearance of a moon indicates that person's death, and he watches the sky to learn about whether his relatives are still alive. The magic is limited by the supreme sacrifices needed of its practitioners, and its strength never approaches the level where its use could solve their problems. Temur sees Samarkar's power as miraculous, but she uses it mostly to conjure water from the air. The intricacy did lose me a few times, but I was often able to catch up from the context.
The book's greatest strength lies in the characters. There are no cardboard cutouts here, no one there just to prop up someone else's story. Everyone in these pages has a history and motivations, though we may not always know what those are. I really cared about Temur and Samarkar by the end of the book, and the way their relationship grew never rang false to me.
Even aside from the worldbuilding, this book is written beautifully. The language has a poetic lilt. Images are evocative. I spent some of my reading time with my stomach churning at the descriptions of injuries and pain, which I was able to picture all too well. But there are also scenes of beauty. Landscapes are painted with a few well-chosen words, and opulent surroundings are captured just as easily. I was in awe of the beauty of the language.
My complaints about this book all stem from it being the first of a trilogy. I wasn't satisfied with the resolutions. Too many conflicts are left hanging. I understand why the book wrapped up where it did, but I would've liked a greater sense of relief at the end.
I'll just have to keep reading, I guess.
This book may take some time to get into, as you adjust to the language and politics. It's well worth the investment, even if the reasons you keep reading aren't resolved by the end. The writing is lovely, and the characters are compelling.
Depending on how the third book ends, I may have to raise my star rating of this book. If the payoff is worth the tension, the buildup is worth five stars.
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