Adventure, Death, and Hope, Under a Changing Sky – A Review of Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

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Much is made of the wide open skies and endless horizon of the American West. It’s been mythologized in every form of narrative media, from novels all the way to contemporary video games, all bound within the conventions of the “Western” genre. The language is familiar: characters talk about “open skies” and “endless horizons”, of days of traveling and talking around a campfire. Descriptions of the wind, the sun, the moon, and the stars abound, as does talk of the desolation of the road, and the privations of travel.

The same can’t be said of the vast steppes between Asia and Europe. Though many of the same descriptions apply – open skies, endless horizons, days of travel, and so on – one doesn’t hear those words applied to it. When one thinks of the steppes, one is more apt to conjure up images of Genghis Khan and his thousands of Mongol raiders sweeping across the steppes on their way to conquer other lands. At best, one imagines caravanserai traversing those vast, grassy spaces, bringing precious goods from East to West and back again.

Unfortunately, this obscures the fact that the steppe – and those who inhabit it – are rich with story, a place where the very air seems to breathe with tales and song. Unjustly labeled by Europeans, Middle Easterners, and the Chinese as “barbarians,” the steppe folk are actually remarkably sophisticated: their histories are long and intricate, and their laws and customs match their neighbours’ in complexity. They were also more liberal in their treatment of women: a woman could own property, divorce her husband, and fight to protect her family and property. They practiced slavery, but then so did the other countries around the steppes, and the steppe folk treated their slaves remarkably well, allowing them to rise high in the esteem of their masters, and sometimes in power, as well.

However, for all that this setting is practically a gold mine for ideas and concepts, especially in genre fiction, it doesn’t get used all that often. When it is, those uses don’t stray very far from the traditional Western view of the steppe folk: rapacious barbarians out to conquer the rest of the world, leaving fire and death in their wake.

But that’s not the case in Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky Trilogy, which opens with the novel Range of Ghosts. The novel opens on a bloody battlefield somewhere in the steppes of the Khaganate, where a young man named Temur wakes up with his throat half-slashed open and amazed that he’s alive at all. While trying to scavenge for supplies a horse comes to him, a horse he names Bansh, and together they manage to leave the battlefield – only to find themselves caught up in a web of plots much, much larger than Temur ever thought. It is a web that stretches across the steppe to the mystical city of Tsarepheth, where Once-Princess Samarkar is trying to become something other than what her birth made her to be. In the meantime, all the way in the distant Uthman Caliphate, a man is trying to gain power by whatever means possible – even if those means involve doing some very foul magic.

The setting is really the first thing that draws the reader into the novel. Drawing from contemporary historical research about the Mongols and the period during which they ruled almost half the world, Bear creates a world with depth, but manages to do so without overburdening the reader with too much information. This can be problematic with some writers, especially if the world is very dense, but for some reason Bear’s world doesn’t seem heavy in the least. I suppose this is because the world itself isn’t so different from actual world history, but that’s also part of the pleasure: this is a world that’s so close to our own, that maybe, if we squint a little and tilt our head to one side, it could be real.

The characters are also a joy to read, though some are more a joy than others. Temur, the first character the reader meets, is meant to be the lead character of the novel, and while he’s fun to read about, at the moment he reads a lot like the typical hero one would find in a fantasy novel. Hope called him a “paladin”, and I rather agree with that assessment, but I do like a bit more conflict in my heroes. I’m very certain that he’s going to grow into something more complex further down the line (there’s hints of that already, in this book), but at this moment, he strikes me as a bit bland.

The women, on the other hand, are amazing and intriguing right from the get-go. There’s Edene, Temur’s “first love” and the woman he seeks to get back after certain events in the first third of the novel, but she’s only around for a rather small portion of the novel. Fortunately, the end of the novel promises something very big in store for her, and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with her further down the line.

I’m far more intrigued by Samarkar, who is the main female protagonist of the novel – and, in my opinion, one of the best characters thus far. Her introduction is centred around a decision she makes for herself, and for herself alone: to have her womb surgically removed so that she can cease being Once-Princess Samarkar, and instead become Samarkar-la, wizard of Tsarepheth. The reason why she chooses to do this (or at least, a part of the reason) is made clear in the third chapter, when she’s first introduced:

She had chosen to trade barrenness and the risk of death for the chance of strength. Real strength, her own. Not the mirror-caught power her father, his widow, her half-brothers, or her dead husband might have happened to shine her way.

It seemed but a small sacrifice.

Those lines immediately endeared her to me, because she made her decision for herself, and for no one and nothing else. Her reasons are her own, and others can think what they will of them, but they are her reasons, and she is determined to do only what she thinks is best, and only on her own terms. I absolutely adore characters who think that way, who make their choices for their own reasons and willingly accept responsibility for those actions, no matter the outcome. They’re few and far between, and I treasure the ones I come across, particularly if they’re female. It was also Samarkar who really solidified my love for this book, though the setting did much to help that along, as well.

As for the rest of it, the plot is intriguing, though it moves rather slowly. I can understand this, and not think it much of a flaw, because this is only the beginning of a trilogy and there’s quite a bit more story left to go. It also helps that Bear makes it obvious she’s laying the groundwork for something bigger, though I suspect some readers will be impatient about the lack of big, grandiose action in this book. To be sure, plenty of things happen (including some prophetic dreams and fateful meetings that will surely have an impact on characters and events further down the line), but it is admittedly a slow book in comparison to the first books of other series.

Thematically speaking, there’s plenty here to start with. Bear’s choice of setting alone is an interesting commentary on the typical, medieval, Western European setting used in fantasy, and Samarkar alone is a study in tropes and conventions connected to women, both in fantasy and in history. There are certain thematic threads about war and family that I found particularly interesting, especially since the two are intimately linked in the novel. There are also questions about destiny and free will, and those are hinted at in this novel, and explored a little, but I suspect those are going to be more fully developed further down the line, along with themes about heroism and duty.

Overall, Range of Ghosts is a fine start to what promises to be a great trilogy, though it does feel a little bit on the slow side. Fortunately, this seeming slowness is made up for by amazing female characters and a world that is so close to ours, one could almost believe it existed. There are also thematic threads woven into the very world building of this novel that a keen eye and interested mind will see and pick up, and I look forward to finding out how those themes – and the threads associated with them – are handled and developed in the upcoming books.

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