, April 30, 2014
(view all comments by Tim Ward)
I have heard for years that Elizabeth Bear is a rare talent, and I wish I hadn’t waited this long to read her. Her ability to mesmerize me with her prose reminds me of Mercedes Yardley, but with her own flair. I highlighted many passages from Range of Ghosts, but I’ll start with the first paragraph:
Ragged vultures spiraled up a cherry sky. Their sooty wings so thick against the sunset could have been the column of ash from a volcano, the pall of smoke from a tremendous fire. Except the fire was a day’s hard ride east��"away over the flats of the steppe, a broad smudge fading into blue twilight as the sun descended in the west.
In a recent podcast with Elizabeth, she said that that first line just came to her and then she had to build the world and story from there. Range of Ghosts was a rare treat in fascination as I read line after line of worldbuilding and scenery that made me think, this is the kind of Fantasy world I want to discover. In the past few years, Michael J. Sullivan has been my only real Fantasy author I’ve been able to read. I struggle with the complexity of nations, factions, casts of characters and how they all must be memorized in order to follow the plot. Both Elizabeth and Michael excel at keeping me engaged and reminding me who is who so that I can follow along leisurely.
One way that Elizabeth kept me from feeling overwhelmed was that she grounded me immediately in her main character, Temur. She paints a realistic setting for him in the wake of a losing battle, but only so far as it supplements his feelings as a warrior without a clan. You sympathize with him in his sorrow that his battle was against cousins, where there can be no victory.
“Perhaps he was a ghost,”
she wrote, and you feel him in his cold sorrow, identifying what it must feel like to have your world flipped upside down, a wound to his neck that should have killed him, and being alive without any clear purpose. In our podcast, Elizabeth talked about how his journey is atypical of most Fantasy heroes. He isn’t necessarily in need of overcoming a character flaw as much as he needs to adapt to a new life. Range of Ghosts is the story of him finding allies within people of different cultures and powers and discovering the people behind a war that has just begun.
Yet, even her antagonists have a degree of sympathy:
It was a sad truth, Shahruz reflected, that the nature of war was such that not everyone could survive it.
I’ve seen a reviewer comment, “How can you not fall in love with a hero who names his horse, Dumpling?” The way he treats this horse and their camaraderie built through their common will to survive is a great picture of why we grow to root for Temur. He moves on from this new friendship to meet a girl, Edene, from a small tribe who is willing to befriend him even though he has no name to give her. Elizabeth’s scenes are subtle, but effective in building sympathy for these characters. Without ruining what happens, I read with eager anticipation to see how their lives would turn out. Elizabeth does a fine job dangling this carrot far enough away to promise an epic and realistically romantic adventure before we’re satisfied.
I’ve yet to mention another of our heroines, the female wizard, Samarkar, whom Elizabeth describes best in this intro:
When she woke��"if she woke��"she would no longer be the Once-Princess Samarkar. She would be the wizard Samarkar, and her training would begin in truth.
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 a small sacrifice.
All of the women in Range of Ghosts exhibit a unique display of power, which also endears us to them, their sacrifices and their journey.
In this story of strong female characters, we also have a wonderfully unique and hard-to-swallow magic system where women suffer for males to gain strength. There is a scene on page twenty that must be shown to evoke the true power it represents, both in Elizabeth’s worldbuilding skills and in the stakes through which this world and power will be won:
Twin girls no older than his youngest daughter lay on the table before him, bound face to face, their throats slit with one blow. It was their blood that flowed down the gutter in the table to fall across his hands and over the sawn halves of a quartz geode he cupped together, reddening them even more than the sun reddened his sand-colored robes.
He stayed there, hands outstretched, trembling slightly with the effort of a strenuous pose, until the blood dripped to a halt. He straightened with the stiffness of a man who feels his years in his knees and spine, and with sure hands broke the geode apart. Strings of half-clotted blood stretched between its parts.
[Al-Sepehr] was not alone… (ellipses mine)
Shahruz drew a naked hand from his sleeve and accepted the gory thing with no evidence of squeamishness. It was not yet dry. “How long will it last?”
“A little while,” he said. “Perhaps ten uses. Perhaps fifteen. It all depends on the strength of the vessels.” The girls, their bodies too warmed by the stone and the sun to be cooling yet. “When you use it, remember what was sacrificed.”
In this world, and branch of magic system, women sleep so that men like Shahruz may absorb their restfulness; women like the twins described above are killed so that stones may be used for communication, with the duration of usefulness tied to the strength of the vessels. The ramifications of this type of magic system on culture is just one example of how this world bleeds with creativity.
I only have one aspect of Range of Ghosts that I did not enjoy as much as the rest of its parts, and that is the section between the halfway point and about ninety percent, where the traveling from one place to the next did not interest me on a scene by scene basis as did the first half of the book. It felt like pieces on a chessboard shuffling around in anticipation of a greater battle to come, which is understandable, but I have to admit that I wanted to enjoy that section more than I did. It could be that I missed some aspects of tension, but that was my experience. I mentioned above that her scenes are subtle, so maybe I didn’t read carefully enough as I eagerly read toward the climax. The last ten percent had a magical, dragon-fighting battle that really excited me for battles to come. I left this book wanting more, but also hoping that the traveling type scenes will be more engaging as the story unfolds.