Friday, December 21, 2012

Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

My Rating: 5.0 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.90 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.89 / 5.00

I read an ARC of this title, which I received from Kristen at Fantasy Cafe.

Temur is a grandson of the Great Khan, drawn into the civil war between his brother and his uncle who both lay claim to the Khaganate. Left for dead with a terrible neck wound, Temur survives the latest battle and begins his slow journey back to his homelands, helped by the almost miraculous horse, Bansh. As they travel across the Steppe, he watches as the moons of his other male relatives blink out one by one until only a few remain.

Samarkar was a Princess, but her husband treated her with great disrespect and so her brother killed him and brought her back home. Now she is in the perilous position of being a possible heir to the Rasan Empire and, therefore, a threat to her brother’s ambitions. In order to divert his political envy she has made the decision to join the Citadel of Wizards, and we join her as she recovers from her operation to make her neutral. She does not know if she will be able to actually call any magical powers, but at least she should be safe from an unfortunate ‘accident’.

These two unlikely companions eventually find their paths crossing and uniting as they uncover a terrible plot to draw all the empires into a massive civil war. The cult of the Scholar-God is determined to spread its influence across the land and is using the darkest and bloodiest of magics to achieve its ends.

Earlier this year Kristen ran her Women in SF&F Month, and Elizabeth Bear was one of the author’s that came highly recommended, so I added her to my TBR list. Then I read one of her short stories, Tideline, in an anthology and was very impressed by it. So, when Kristen had some ARCs to pass on, I was delighted that one of them was A Range of Ghosts: not only is the cover very intriguing and striking, but I had also seen many rave reviews about the title.

However, as I began to read, I was not at all sure about this book for the first few chapters. I liked the unusual setting because it is great to see a fantasy title that is not immersed in European mythology and culture, but the beginning seemed somewhat slow and almost ethereal. One problem I did have right at the beginning was the names of the characters associated with the Scholar-God’s cult. They all have very similar names and so I found myself having to check their identities before they finally stuck in my brain. This could be a symptom of my increasing decrepitude, but I really hope not as I do not normally struggle with character names this much.

But I knew that everyone was raving about this book and so I plodded on, just as Temur does, hoping that it would improve and I would understand what all the love was about. I came to appreciate the slower rhythm of the earlier chapters, as they allowed me to absorb my surroundings, to sniff the air and get a good feel for this alien world that I was travelling through. That is one of the great surprises of this book: we are not on Earth, or even a past or future version of it. This is a land where the male heirs of the Great Khan each have a moon in the night sky. Each moon is slightly different, just as the men are unique, and they only burn while the man remains alive. In this way Mother Night allows Temur to see who in his family is still alive. However, Samarkar sees a totally different sky, because she lives in another empire, and we later learn that the sky changes as a person passes from one political empire to another. That’s right: you can tell who holds political sway of a land by looking at the sky! The sun travels in different directions and the look of the sky itself changes as the dominion of a land alters. How totally cool is that?!

Then we have the wonderful cultural details that make us so aware that this is not Ye Olde Europe. The people stick out their tongues as a form of greeting and showing respect. They bow deeply and even prostrate themselves in front of the most exulted members of the hierarchy. Not only that, but we see massive differences between neighboring cultures as well as their languages, social structures and religions. This is all presented in a wonderfully light way that communicates these nuances without beating us around the head with information dumps. And then, just as you are beginning to really geek out about the magic, necromancy, giant flying birds, weird skies and the amazingly drawn cultures, you meet Hrahima. I will not spoil your enjoyment of the book by telling you what makes her so amazing, but I have to admit that I laughed out loud with delighted glee when she was revealed. She is the final element that really emphasizes that we are not in Kansas anymore!

After this point in the story, the feel of the book and the pacing of the plot change. Just as our heroes reveal the conspiracy behind the events that they are observing, they realize that they must act with speed and decisiveness and we get a much more focused plot that moves along with increasing speed. By the end of the book I was left breathless and desperate to discover what happens next as we screech to a halt. It is not that there is a terrible cliffhanger, but the breakneck pace makes it very frustrating to put the book aside at this point and I did say a few choice words about nasty writers not writing books fast enough!

So, I think you can gather that I really, REALLY enjoyed this book, and I have not even mentioned the characters yet. Both Temur and Samarkar are wonderfully nuanced and real people. They are both sensible people, with a great deal of practical life experience who react to situations in realistic ways. They have strengths and weaknesses and they both have extraordinary talents, but they are not superhuman in their talents. Temur is a great bowman, and, yes, the cover is correct in showing him firing whilst standing on horseback, but he gets injured and cannot ‘do a Legolas’ and escape from any situation without batting an eyelid. Samarkar does indeed discover an ability to use magic, but it is made very clear that she does not have a particularly impressive talent, and she cannot always use it when needed. I found this very refreshing in its realism.

The secondary characters are also suitably flawed, each having a massive weakness that they must overcome. Tsering is also a wizard, but she has no magical talent at all; Payma is pregnant with a rival heir and Brother Hsiung is going blind and has made a vow of silence. I was very pleased at the number of strong females that we meet in this world, many of whom are leaders, although this is not through their suppression of men. Of course, one of the major characters cannot speak at all and yet conveys a great deal through her actions and body language. This is the horse Bansh, who seems to be magical in some way, or perhaps a gift of the gods. I am not quite sure how she came to Temur’s aid, but she has some very funny ‘lines’ and manages to be wildly impressive whilst looking scrawny and not very pretty.

In short, this book was everything that I had expected and more. The main characters are believable and endearing while the villain is suitably mysterious and diabolical, even though he prays through copying out religious texts. The setting is amazing and bursting with imagination and stunning visual imagery, while the plot sweeps you along like the wind blowing through the grass under the Eternal Sky.

I cannot wait to read the second book in the series: Shattered Pillars.

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