Sunday, April 15, 2012

"Range of Ghosts," by Elizabeth Bear

The Protagonists:
Temur: Fleeing from a murderous uncle intent on destroying all potential usurpers of his own usurped leadership, nomadic prince Temur must come out of hiding when his lover is kidnapped by ghosts.

Samarkar: The Once-Princess of the Empire of Rasan, she relinquishes her earthly power in return for the magical power of wizardry - and discovers more strength than even she knew she had.

The Secondary Cast:
Hrahima: An enormous, philosophically-struggling tiger woman who serves Temur's maternal grandfather.

Brother Hsiung: A monk working beneath a vow of silence who accompanies Temur and Samarkar on their journey.

Al-Sepehr: An evil leader of a murder-cult capable of harnessing the ghosts of the unshriven dead to perform his bidding.

Edene: Temur's lover and the mother of his unborn child, who is kidnapped by Al-Sepehr in order to ensure Temur's obedience.

Shahruz: An evil minion of Al-Sepehr who's capable of psychically communicating through his twin sister, Saadet.

Saadet: Shahruz' twin sister who carries his messages to their leader, Al-Sepehr. Both of them were saved by Al-Sepehr when their parents left them to die of exposure.

Bansh: A Very Special Horse. Of course, of course!

Fantasy Convention Checklist:

Several Unhappy Ghosts

2 Giant Birds

1 Magical Ring

Several Scientifically-Improbable Celestial Bodies

Several Prophetic Dreams

1 Murderous Worm
The Word:
In the middle of the steppe, young Temur, one of the last remaining grandsons of the Khan of Khans, is left for dead with a massive throat wound after a climatic battle between his brother, the rightful (but now sadly deceased) heir to the Khaganate, and his bloodthirsty uncle, Qori Buqa. Only barely surviving, Temur has no wish to take up the crown but knows his uncle will not rest until he is dead - and as long as Temur's moon still shines in the sky for all to see, he will be hunted.

Abandoning the fight, he latches on to a ragtag clan of survivors, only to run into worse horrors: his new clan is attacked by the hungry ghosts of the dead from his last battle. When his lover Edene is spirited away (sorry for the pun, couldn't help myself), Temur is determined to rescue her.

Meanwhile, in the Citadel of Tsarepheth, the widowed Princess Samarkar is initiated into the world of wizardry. While becoming a wizard exacts a high price (all wizards must sacrifice their reproductive organs) - Samarkar is willing to trade her fertility in return for a life in which she is no longer a bride to be bartered in the power games of her brother, the Emperor of Rasan. Free now to pursue her own power, she is immediately sent on a mission by her master to the mountain city of Qeshqer. There, her story intersects with Temur's and reveals the truth about a looming war in which even the dead must fight.

Range of Ghosts is a highly enjoyable read, due mostly to how it effortlessly mingles old-school narrative structure with original worldbuilding. Its narrative foundation is the much-beloved quest-based epic fantasy that I greedily devoured in my teens - two plucky protagonists are sent on a quest and collect a motley band of interesting and original characters along the way.

However, Elizabeth Bear builds upon that foundation with fantastic worldbuilding - instead of going with the standard pseudo-European setting, Bear borrows from Asian and Middle Eastern cultures and adds the fantasy element of a skyscape that changes depending on political and geographical boundaries (certain countries have suns that travel west to east, and the night skies of Temur's steppe have as many moons as there are surviving descendants of the Khan of Khans).

Bear creates a panoply of cultures that, realistically, bleed into and influence each other. I remember reading fantasies as a teenager where it seemed like the moment a character crosses a geographical border, all the people suddenly have vastly different physical features and languages. Bear's are much more complex than that, particularly in regards to Temur, whose nomadic exposure to different cultures contributes to an open-minded, culturally sophisticated personality that's a far cry from the stereotypical "barbarian" cliche.

Samarkar's an excellent character as well - after surviving a disastrous political marriage, she seizes control of her own destiny with both hands. She's a fascinating mixture of experience and innocence - years of political intrigue as a Princess of the Rasan court have left her with excellent diplomatic skills, but in terms of her magic - the first power she's held that's truly her own - she's still learning her strengths and limits.

It's interesting to note how much I came to care about Temur and Samarkar (and Hrahima and the others) - I tried reading Elizabeth Bear before, with her sci-fi novel Hammered. I left that book profoundly disappointed because, ultimately, I didn't click with any of the characters and I wasn't invested in the outcome. However, I've since come to discover that I frequently respond to science fiction stories with this sort of detachment, whereas I come alive and become involved with fantasies. I could write an entire essay as to why that is, but I would like people to continue reading my blog, so I'll refrain.

That being said, there were a few developments that I felt were rushed (the rescue of a pregnant princess came entirely out of the blue), and a couple of times I had to page backwards to remind myself of the goal they were currently questing for - but perhaps that is simply because I'm out of practice reading epic fantasy.

Either way, if you're a fan of old-fashioned (in the best way!) quest narratives with an unconventional descriptive flair, definitely give Range of Ghosts a try.B+

Purchase Range of Ghosts here.

1 comment:

  1. Glad you enjoyed the book, I certainly did. And I know what you mean about the pregnant princess suddenly coming along. Whut???
    I do hope we don't have to wait a full year for the next book.
    For another story in this general world, try the novella "Bone and Jewel Creatures". It is set in Messaline and is a stand-alone.
    Barb in Maryland