Hardcover review copy courtesy of the Publisher, Tor
Elizabeth Bear has been plying her trade in the science fiction and fantasy genres for nearly a decade now, her stories ranging from far future science fiction to Victorian fantasy. Though I’ve read (and enjoyed) some of her short fiction, I’ve yet to immerse myself in one of her novels. With Range of Ghosts that has changed and the word immersive is indeed apt for my experience with the novel, her first true venture into Epic Fantasy and the first novel in The Eternal Sky.
Set in a fantasized Middle-East, the novel centers on characters who are at the fringes of society: a young man who is the lone survivor of a vicious battle for succession that took the lives of many his family (Temur) and a young woman setting aside her royal lineage to assume the role of Sorceress (Samarkar). While Temur and Samarkar are the focal characters for much of the novel, fringe characters such as the tiger-woman (an outcast of her tribe) Hrahima or the woman with whom Temur initially bonds emotionally, Edene herself is part of a fringe society. These characters, despite and because of their ‘fringe’ status are powerful and persistent in their motivations and actions. Yeah, that’s right, Bear threw tiger people in as a race of characters, and though Hrahima is a minor character at the moment, through the other characters in the novel, Bear gives her a great sense of power and awe. I hope Bear explores this character in greater depth in future novels, as well as the society from which she comes
The basic thrust of the story finds Temur coming out of the aforementioned battle along the Celadon Highway and taken in by Edene’s people. A devotion and attraction grows between Eden and Temur, as they travel across the titular Range of Ghosts, Edene is taken away by the ghosts who haunt the trail. He is devastated and soon crosses paths with Samarkar and they attempt to find Edene. Meanwhile, a cult tries to take over the world through subterfuge and behind-the-scenes devilry.
Did I mention the gods are alive and real and each ‘nation’ has a different sky which contains different moons and stars? Yeah, there’s that too. One of the things that make this novel so amazing is Bear’s ability to weave these elements into a wholly cohesive narrative. Woven along with these elements is an incredibly lush and powerful resonant element of mythology. The vital connection between the creation myth one character recounts has great bearing on the world itself. In many other fantasies the gods may be part of the world, but more so in Bear’s richly developed world the gods, or beings thought of as gods, actions have logical connections to how the characters react, in terms of consequences of the gods actions and how the characters internalize those elements into their own actions.
I mentioned the resonance in this novel that Bear has constructed so wonderfully, I felt the same power reading Range of Ghosts I did reading and enjoying archetypal myths and folktales that have been around for thousands of years such. While I enjoyed reading the novel in the moment, the sense of gravitas in the story settled in with my imagination after I’d set the novel aside for the day’s reading or even when I completed the novel. In a sense, Range of Ghosts, from my reading experience, can be seen as a successful experiment in modern mythmaking. What is even more promising is that this is just the beginning and Bear has more to tell in this resonant story.
The novel is just over 300 pages, which judged against many other novels considered Epic Fantasy, may be considered a bit slight. It’s possibly a worn-out phrase, but not one word, punctuation mark, or letter is wasted in the telling of Range of Ghosts. It is precise, engaging and powerful. Bear has packed the novel tightly with emotion, romance, characters who are believable and living, conflict both internal on a character level and external in physical battles, to such a degree that the wonder is in her ability to do so much in such a relatively small space. Bear balances the epic scale of gods in a fully realized and living cosmology as real beings with the intimate goals, feelings, and emotions of her human characters as magnificently as any writer plying their trade in fantasy today.
I suggested early in this review that I haven’t read much of Bear’s fiction, which after reading Range of Ghosts should be rephrased as “nearly enough.” In other words, I’ll be carving out space on the ‘to read’ stacks (and high on those stacks) for more of her novels.
Range of Ghosts novel shares some superficial similarities with Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, and like Ahmed’s noel will rank as one of my top novels for 2012 and one that should find itself atop many award lists.
– HIGHLY RECOMMENDED –
© 2012 Rob H. Bedford