Range of Ghosts

by Elizabeth Bear

Cover image

Series: Eternal Sky #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: March 2012
ISBN: 0-7653-2754-6
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 334

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Temur is one of many grandsons of the Great Khagan. We meet him on a bloody battlefield, in the aftermath of a fight between his cousin and his brother over the succession. His brother lost and Temur was left for dead with a vicious cut down the side of his neck, improbably surviving among the corpses and even more improbably finding a surviving horse (or being found by one). But a brief reprieve and a potential new family connection are cut brutally short when they are attacked by ghosts and his lover is pulled away into the sky.

Once-Princess Samarkar was heir and then a political wife of a prince, but her marriage was cut short in bloody insult when her husband refused to consummate the marriage. Now, she's chosen a far different path: be neutered in order to become a wizard. If she survives the surgery, she gains independence from her brother, freedom from politics, and possibly (if she's lucky) magical power.

Range of Ghosts is the first book of a fantasy trilogy set in what appears to be an analogue of what's now far northwest China and the central Asian steppes (although the geography doesn't exactly follow ours). There are mountainous strongholds, a large city-based civilization in the east, a civilization with onion domes and a different god in the west, and nomadic horse clans in the north. That said, there's also, as one discovers a bit later in the book, a race of huge bipedal cat people, just to be sure you don't think this is too much like our world.

I had a hard time with the start of this book due to the brutality. Just in the first 70 pages or so, we get a near-fatal wound that a character has to hold closed with his hand (for pages), human sacrifice, essentially medieval invasive surgery, a graphic description of someone losing an eye, and then (I think a little later in the book) serious illness with high fever. And this is Elizabeth Bear, which means the descriptions are very well-written and vivid, which was... not what I wanted. Thankfully, the horror show does slow down by the middle of the book.

The opening also didn't quite connect with me. There's a lot about war, the aftermath of war, and the death of Temur's family, but I found Temur mostly boring. The reader enters the story in at the aftermath, so none of the death and battle really touched me. Temur's steppe mythology is vaguely interesting, but only vaguely.

Samarkar saved this book for me. She's pragmatic, introspective, daring, but also risk-conscious. She pays attention and learns and studies, and she takes the opportunity to learn from everyone she can. The magical system she's learning also has some nicely-described effects without being too mechanical, and I liked the interweaving of magic with science. As she started taking charge of the plot, I thought this book got better and better. Also, full points for the supposedly pampered concubine (one of Samarkar's relatives) turning out to have iron determination and considerable ability to put up with hardship when it was required. That was refreshing.

More positive points to this book for allowing both men and women can choose to become neutered and become wizards. Same principle, so why not the same effect? One of the things I like about fantasy is the opportunity to explore human society with little tweaks and differences, and the ones that poke at gender roles and ask why we gender something that clearly could be gender-neutral make me happy.

I wasn't as fond of the hissable villain. I think I'm getting increasingly grumbly about books in which the villain is so obviously evil as to be basically demonic. Maybe Bear will twist this around in later books, but this one opens with human sacrifice, and the villain doesn't get any more appealing as we go along. I think I wasn't in the mood to read about someone plotting horrible dark things, keeping hostages, and practicing black magic, particularly since Bear's vivid descriptions make it a bit hard to tune the horrors out.

Thankfully, there isn't that much of the villain, and there's rather a lot of Samarkar, which left me generally happy with the book and wanting more. However, be warned that this is in absolutely no way a standalone book. Essentially nothing is resolved in this volume; you will need the sequel (if not the third book as well) for any sense of completed story whatsoever.

Followed by The Shattered Pillars.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-11-23

Last modified and spun 2017-11-24