Range of Ghosts is the first novel of a new series written by the multiple award winner Sci-Fi and Fantasy author Elizabeth Bear. It was released in March of the current year and will be followed by The Shattered Pillars and a last book to complete the trilogy.
Temur, grandson of the Great Khan, is walking away from a battlefield where he was left for dead. All around lie the fallen armies of his cousin and his brother, who made war to rule the Khaganate. Temur is now the legitimate heir by blood to his grandfather’s throne, but he is not the strongest. Going into exile is the only way to survive his ruthless cousin.Once-Princess Samarkar is climbing the thousand steps of the Citadel of the Wizards of Tsarepheth. She was heir to the Rasan Empire until her father got a son on a new wife. Then she was sent to be the wife of a Prince in Song, but that marriage ended in battle and blood. Now she has renounced her worldly power to seek the magical power of the wizards. These two will come together to stand against the hidden cult that has so carefully brought all the empires of the Celadon Highway to strife and civil war through guile and deceit and sorcerous power.
Elizabeth Bear is a renowned author but Range of Ghosts is her first work that I picked up. After a few chapters, I realized one of the reasons for her success; a smooth and imaginative writing style, not poetic but still, with a rhythm that make the prose feels personal, even passionate. Even with High Fantasy involved, the prose is taken up-close and feels a bit confining. However, the pace of her story is slightly too slow and the protagonists seems to be living in a black and white world, at least so far, and I think the so far is important.
Aside from her writing, Bear's dedication toward world building is clear enough right from the first moments of the book. Temur is part of a society reminiscent of the Mongolian steppe emperor. The novel is actually dedicated to some great-(...)-great grandsons of Genghis Khan. Curiously, this element is present mostly by reference since Temur's spending much time getting away from his homeland. Speaking of which, the sky he lives under and the one in each "region" visited or viewed by the characters are different. That's an interesting concept.
The author doesn't stop there. Religion and gods, myths, history, middle-eastern or oriental inspired societies and naming schemes, everything has been worked on laboriously and it transpire throughout all the story and characters. I admit that I had some problem with some names but eventually got over it. They may also have been too much references to different races, society or people in too short a span, more so since they were not all explored or important.
Then, there is the actual plot of Range of Ghost. That's where some problems emerged for me with Bear's novel. First, Temur's relationship with someone he encounters early on his exile (I will try not to give stuff away) has to be considered strong enough to become a life-threatening situation for him as he starts his travels. For me, that wasn't the case. I didn't feel the bond between the two to be substantial enough for him to give up, even if it's temporary, on his Khagnate heritage for that person's sake.
Eventually, he meets with Samarkar who has a more interesting and better-detailed background. Even if her reality is not the same as Temur's, the oriental influence is still present. Her motivations to become a wizard are well rooted and her storyline evolves through one of her assignment. With that, her meeting with Temur feels like a satisfying happening that will lead her into a strange journey where she will find more than danger. There's some romance in the air. So even if she's ultimately forced, or I should say dragged into this by necessity, at least she has some goal ahead of her. Her dedication is remarkable.
Going back to Temur, even after his party is assembled, with the addition of a Cho-tse, a tiger-shaped humanoid, his motive still seems intangible. At this point, I felt that the meta-story or the main arc of the book would remain unclear or would be barely explored in this first book. It felt awkward for me. Moreover, there are the mountains behind the name of the book. Let's just say that the crossing of the Range of Ghosts from one side, which seems like a hefty hardship is a walk in the park in the way back. Anyways, that's not in these small details that you can judge a book, but when they become too many, they tend to drag things down.
On the other side, there's Al-Sepehr, a priest of the Scholar-God. He's the usual power hungry incarnation but he's not working only on his master's behalf. He's helping Qori Buqa, Temur's uncle, in his move for the Khaganate. His thread brings to life the more intriguing aspects of the book and some interesting concepts for Bear's magic system. We discover more about magic from his use of it and the interactions he has with his agents and even a Djinn. When he is involved, you realize that this particular world is full of surprising elements.
As you can see, Range of Ghosts was a somewhat flawed book for me, not a bad novel but not the work I expected from the reviews I read and the status of Elizabeth Bear. I never felt compelled by the purpose driving the characters, which include the protagonists themselves at times and in the end, I never felt they were really in danger. Death seems to be reserved to the faceless minions of the villains. It may be that what the author wanted to achieve was to establish the foundations for her characters and her world but sadly, at least for me, that ought to come with a more engaging plot and at least some kind of closure at the end of the first book.
Even though there's some action and humour incorporated into Bear's novel, if you're a fan of the new popular trends in Fantasy like Abercombie's grittiness, that book is not for you. If you are more into elaborate but not complex tales, sometimes romantic or emotional, full of fantastic elements and slow going Fantasy, then, Range is right up your alley. It's the start of something but quite a "complete start".
Technically, the Tor cover is original, stylish and representative. The hardcover edition of the novel stands at 334 pages. A beautiful map is included but I still haven't received confirmation from Tor that it can be posted on the web.
Range of Ghosts review score :
World building............... 8.5 / 10
Magic system................. 8 / 10
Story.............................. 6.5 / 10
Writing........................... 9 / 10
Overall (not an average) 7 / 10
Elizabeth Bear page