PROS: Engaging, three dimensional characters; deep and immersive worldbuilding; Top-notch writing.
CONS: The lack of a proper ending is the only major flaw that I can cite.
VERDICT: The Trope Codifier for Silk Road Fantasy and proof that Elizabeth Bear is one of the best writers in genre today.
In my recent review of The Emperor’s Knife, I talked about fantasy that is inspired not by traditional medieval European motifs, but rather “Silk Road Fantasy“. To the list of books on that book review, I have found the book that is the trope codifier for Silk Road Fantasy, the book that shows you really how its done. The author is Elizabeth Bear, and the book is her newest, and her first dip into Epic Fantasy: Range of Ghosts.
Elizabeth Bear, I hope, needs no introduction to you. In seven years she has been building her reputation and skills in the genre community, from the Jenny Casey trilogy (near-future science fiction with augmentations, aliens and spacecraft) through the double diptych of the Promethean Age (urban modern day fantasy through the first half, and Elizabethean fantasy for the second). In other works, Bear has explored generation ships, vampires, men bonded to wolves, Lovecraftian beasties and more. Now, Elizabeth Bear has decided to tackle Epic Fantasy.
Range of Ghosts is set on the steppes of a world similar to our own, with haunting resonances to post-Genghis Khan Central Asia. The great Khan is dead, his descendants are quarreling over the shards of Empire. There are cultures and places mentioned and visited that are evocative of places in our world for that time period: The Song; The Uthman Caliphate; The Khangate itself — all of them are linked by the Celadon Highway, her version of the silk road, although it is pottery, not silk, that gives this silk road its name.
The places we visit, the realms we hear about are unusual and real. It does feel like she has taken the Heartland of Asia and turned its realms into its own creations. I am going to have to read more on the kingdoms and places along the real silk road to get the references and correlations that I missed. I want to know more what inspired places such as Rasa, Qeshqer, the Qersnyk, and other places and things I don’t recognize the antecedents.
Even if Bear had just stopped there, the worldbuilding would be more than adequate. But she goes deeper and more complex, more layered in her worldbuilding. The world is a polytheistic glut of deities. The Caliphate does have resonances with Islam, but they worship a scholar Goddess. And the skies! Reminding me a bit of the Rose of the Prophet series, except in the real world, the skies of each of the polities is different and unique. You can tell when you have left the Uthman Caliphate and entered another realm because the skies are different, both nighttime and daytime skies. Bear doesn’t explain why this is so (and its a bit frustrating because Temur is represented in the skies of his homeland with a moon of his own), but it’s a wonderful conceit.
The novel offers a set of distinct and distinctive protagonists, ranging from Temur, the grandson of the Khan who survived a bloody battle of succession, to Samarkar, princess turned wizard, to Edene, whom Temur meets, and loses, in his exile. There’s also Hrahima, a female Cho-tse, a humanoid tigress, and antagonists and minor characters, all whom come off the page to life. The relations between the protagonists and other characters evolve, grow and change. They never feel like pieces Bear is moving across her giant landscape.
What’s the plot? A rich stew (although the characters do not eat stew on the road, a good bit of travel logic on Bear’s part) of elements, blended together. A kidnapped lover? A war to take control of the remnants of the Khan’s empire? Dark magic? An evil cult setting kingdoms and polities at war with each other? Intrigue? It all starts small, with Temur fleeing a battle and Samarkar learning to be a wizard and giving up her life as a Princess in the bargain, and things spiral from there. But it all interlocks and interplays beautifully. We don’t see lots of slam-bang combat and action, but Bear does not shy away from action and combat scenes, be it assassins on the road trying to kill Temur and friends, or a reaving of ghosts.
As for the writing, Bear’s voice is strong, clear and engaging. Given the amount of time it takes to travel across the steppe, there is plenty of time to get to know the characters, but this book is not padded; Bear’s writing is economical and lean but never spare. There is a lot packed into its 330 pages. It’s very similar to Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon that way.
Giving this a Weimer Stakes Score, for the first volume, puts it in firmly in Epic fantasy. The fate of a number of kingdoms makes Range of Ghosts clearly in the sevens. Given the amount of territory we’ve seen and is under threat, call it 7.6. If some intimations in this novel about what really is going on are borne out in the second and third volumes, that score is going to push higher, perhaps into the 8’s and maybe approach 9. Given what Bear did in the Edda of Burdens books, it wouldn’t be the first time she’s written things with that high of a score. And the best thing is, its all tied together to personal stakes for the characters. Smaller stories and stakes that fit together to and drive the bigger ones.
The only real thing I have to say against this novel — and it’s not enough for me to deny it a five star rating — is the lack of a proper ending. The novel’s stopping point just is that, a stopping point, and readers who like a relatively complete story in the first volume of a trilogy or series are not going to get anything like one here. I seem to recall Hammered, her first novel and first in the Jenny Casey trilogy, was a bit like that, too. It frustrated me, both because I like a ending, and because I want to find out what happens next. Although I have not read it (one of the few lacunae in my reading of her work, I understand Bone and Jewel Creatures is set in the same universe.)
Elizabeth Bear is one of the best writers in genre today. Period. She’s dipped her pen into more and more subgenres of Fantasy and Science Fiction and now, it seems, she seems intent on conquering epic fantasy. Given her abilities and strength of craft, if you have the slightest interest in epic fantasy, Range of Ghosts will push your buttons in all the right ways. It would take a tremendous set of other books from other authors for the rest of the year for Range of Ghosts not to make my 2012 Hugo ballot. Whether you are familiar with her work, or have tragically not picked up her novels or read her short fiction, here is the book of hers to read. Do it.