Sunday, October 14, 2012

Range of Ghosts - Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear has been releasing novels at an impressive rate since 2005. What is even more impressive is the versatility these novels display. They range from science fiction to urban fantasy, from horror to historical fiction and often include elements from various subgenres such as post-apocalyptic or steampunk. Bear's new book, Range of Ghosts, is the first volume in the Eternal Sky trilogy. It is Bear's attempt at epic fantasy and judging from this first volume, this trilogy might be something special. It was published in March so I am a bit late to the party. There is already a host of glowing reviews out there. I can only add my praise to it. Range of Ghosts is a novel that ought to be on the awards shortlists next year.

The novel follows Temur, grandson of a great Khagan of the steppes. Once the sky was littered with a hundred moon, representing his sons and grandson. Now the moons are disappearing at an alarming rate as the the Khaganate is torn apart by civil war. After his brother dies in battle, Temur is the legitimate heir but his faction is weak. He chooses exile to avoid being killed by his stronger cousin. Under a different sky Samakar, once princess of the Rasan empire, has given up her royal status to become a wizard. Once she was heir but after her half-brother was born, she lost that status and the only way not to pose a threat to his reign is to remove herself completely from the line of succession. Together, Temur and Samakar will face a religious cult bent on encouraging war among the nations of the region to further their own goals. Whatever sky they are under, the world is a dangerous place for Temur and Samakar.

The first thing the reader will notice is that Bear opted to abandon the pseudo-medieval Europe setting in favour of a Central Asian one. Temur and his people are clearly inspired by the Mongols, Samakar's people appear to be Tibetan, and Chinese, Arab and Turkish traditions also make an appearance. Just about every nation along to Silk Route, or Celadon Highway, is present somehow. Although non-western settings are becoming more common, Bear's choice is still a nice change for the more experienced fantasy reader. That atmosphere in this novel is very different. I'm not very well versed in the history of the region but I get the impression Bear didn't try to stick too close to actual history. In this case that probably improves the tale.

The supernatural is very present in the story. The sky in particular is an element to take note of. It changes depending on the religion of the local rulers. Temur's iron moon for instance, is only visible in places where the Khagan holds sway. In the Rasan empire the sky looks very different and the characters are always aware of it. You only have to look up to be reminded of the nation you are in, and which religion is dominant in it. Such a clearly visible reminder of the presence of the gods has an impact on the characters. Temur and Samakar are very aware of the different ways the same histories are told in their respective nations.

Temur's story is very much at the forefront during much of the novel but it is the female characters that are most interesting in this story. It is as if Bear wanted to write a fantasy novel that included the full range of what is possible for a female character to achieve into this single volume. The world Bear describes is not without sexism. Arranged, forced marriages are mention, exclusion from the line of succession in some places and the need to wear a veil in others. Samakar and the secondary character Payma experience some of this first hand. But there is tremendous power in these women too. We see women as powerful political figures, honoured advisers and warriors as well as damsels in distress and victims. In Temur's realm they even enjoy a level of sexual freedom than is pretty rare in epic fantasy. As the novel progressed I became more and more convinced Bear was making a statement here. Creating an example of how women could be portrayed in epic fantasy without limiting them the traditional roles they're usually found in.

Like in the other novels by Bear I've read, the style in which she writes is something special as well. Where Bear liked to play with tenses and points of view in the Edda of Burdens trilogy, it he choice of words and, especially in the descriptions, a limited use of contractions that drew my attention in this novel. In Temur's chapters, the horse related idiom is very present. Samakar is more concerned with power, appearance and politics. The undercurrents of politics are always present in her point of view sections. The synthesis between point of view and use of language in this novel is probably my favourite aspect of Range of Ghosts.

If there is one point of criticism I could direct at this novel, it is the fact that it is probably going to be more of a long novel in three parts than a trilogy. There is a strong climatic scene at the end, in which Samakar shows impressive physical strength, but it is also something of a cliffhanger. There is no way you can finish this book and not want to read the sequel Shattered Pillars. Personally I can live with that. All things considered, Range of Ghost is an impressive novel in terms of world building, characterization and prose. It is quite simply one of the best books I've read this year. I guess the good thing about getting to it late is that I won't have to wait too long for the second book, which is expected in March 2013. Bear has placed Shattered Pillars high on my to read list.

Book Details
Title: Range of Ghosts
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 334
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2754-3
First published: 2012