I’ve been meaning to read Elizabeth Bear for some time now, and after taking up Worlds Without End‘s Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge, Range of Ghosts came out on top of that list. I was almost put off immediately after reading the first few pages – the premise is great, but the prose seemed uncomfortably stuffy. Luckily, around the second chapter or so, it either toned down a bit or I got used to it – either way, I’m happy that it did.
Temur is the grandson of the Great Khan, a noble of the steppes in every sense of the word. Range of Ghosts opens up with Temur near-death on a battlefield, surrounded by the bodies of the dead and dying, his dreams of glory shattered. After the Khagan Mongke died, the Khaganate was plunged into civil war, with Temur’s relatives waging it. Normally, following a battle, the souls of the dead are put to rest in the Eternal Sky. Unfortunately for Temur, nobody put the souls to rest, and those ghosts are used to track and haunt him throughout the story. Once-Princess Samarkar forgoes her right to the Rasan Empire as well as her ability to bear children in order to become a wizard. Somewhere along the way, the paths of Samarkar and Temur meet. But the characters and the plot, while decent, were nothing truly outstanding or complex. What really made this story for me was the world.
Elizabeth Bear has created one of the most vivid and unique worlds that I’ve encountered in Range of Ghosts. The Eternal Sky is filled with a moon for each of the heirs of the Khaganate. Every time Temur looks to the Sky, another moon winks out, as another of his bloodline is killed. The Sky is different from kingdom to kingdom as well – changing with beliefs among other things. Bear’s detailed prose combined with the world she has created makes for a story in and of itself. It was very refreshing to read a story that was not set in the traditional western medieval society. The world is inhabited by many ghosts and creatures, including an interesting race of tiger warriors as well as horses of all kinds.
Horses are a focal point of Range of Ghosts. They aren’t just a means to get from point A to point B, they’re as real and get as much attention as any character does. Temur’s mare, named Dumpling, or Bansh in the tongue of the Khaganate, is probably one of the best characters, and she’s a horse. That says something for the amount of detail that goes into describing the horses of the story – the ability to make a fairly strong character out of a horse. The Mongolians loved their horses, and Bear does a fantastic job bringing these animals to the fore. Mongolians and other steppe tribes were also big on family. Who you were, who you were related to, that kind of thing. Your family name carried weight, and Bear nails that as well.
Range of Ghosts, while starting somewhat rough for me, ended up being an entertaining book with a strong finish, though it was very obvious even without the sequel, Shattered Pillars being out, that there was more to come. The tale has a unique theme and is filled with a variety of beings, including ghosts, horses, wizards, one particularly fierce tiger warrior, some solid characters, and detailed prose paired with rich worldbuilding. I’m looking forward to checking out Shattered Pillars at some point in the future.
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