Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Review: Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear


I remember a time not so long ago when it seemed every (epic) fantasy book out there was set in some medieval Western European analog, particularly a British analog (presumably because they speak English there, though the notion of what languages were actually spoken and sounded like in medieval Britain is probably not well appreciated, but I digress). The trend over the last year or two has been to reverse the Euro-centric focus of the past with most new (epic) fantasies inspired at least in part by non-western cultures. I love this positive evolving of the genre, though I must say that the novelty of it has worn off a bit with its popularity.
 
Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) follows this new trend with inspiration from the Asian steppes, Mongol hordes, mountain Buddhists and desert caliphates. Of course there’s magic, an interesting set of very real gods that literally change the sky above, and a quest. Range of Ghosts shows Bear executing at her best – the economy and ease with which she unveils the story shows a mastery of her craft.
 
Range of Ghosts centers on Temur, a prince of a great empire of the steppes. One of his uncles aims to take over the empire, with the typical slaughter and great battles that ensue. Temur escapes and flees to a mountain empire to the south where he finds himself on a quest of survival, rescue and vengeance in the company of some interesting and not all human companions.
 
The economy with which Bear writes Range of Ghosts stands out as one of the biggest triumphs of the book. It’s an epic fantasy, the opening of the Eternal Sky trilogy, and it’s only 334 pages long. It’s not that the book is without depth, or that the characters are lacking development, or that the world is not built well enough. It’s simply that no word, no sentence, no paragraph is wasted. And the language flows almost poetically, harkening back to an earlier time in epic fantasy and the likes of Le Guin and McKillip. The near-poetic style of writing helps to set the tone of the setting and culture, completing the otherworldly feel that the best of fantasy can achieve.
 
However, for all the beautiful economy of the language, I found it a bit challenging to become fully engaged in the book and its characters at first. While I won’t say I was disinterested, I didn’t care as much as I should have for the first third of the book or so. I can’t fully explain why this was, but it was a bit of a hindrance to me fully engaging with the story and its characters. I suspect that it’s mostly due to the necessary set-up of an opening book in a new world and something on an unconvincing opening romance (though I really like the direction this appears to be going by the end of the book).
 
But, once the set-up is complete, the pace really gets going. The interplay between the characters is well presented – their depth, conflict, uncertainty, confidence, even arrogance is very nearly priceless. And there’s just enough humor interlaced with the tense, dangerous, and even tragic moments to bring things to life.
 
Elizabeth Bear is one of those authors that should be talked about more in the circles I populate. She is one of the most prolific SFF authors of the last decade, with a huge range in her story telling. I’ve read a bit here and there, though I’ve always planned to read more (as one would guess from the number of her books that rest on The Stack of books to be read). I’ve seen it said that Range of Ghosts is her best yet – I don’t feel I’ve read enough of her books to comment there – but it is good, quite good and it should be getting more buzz than it has. 2012 is turning out to be a very good year for the fantasy genre, a year that shows it’s grown up a bit, seen the world and realized that there is way more to it than medieval Britain. Bear belongs at the forefront of this discussion. But perhaps the best thing I can say about Range of Ghosts is this: I really, really want to read the sequel, The Shattered Pillars (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon). Like now*. And so should you.
 
 
*I suppose I could read one of the companion novellas, such as Bone and Jewel Creatures (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon).

6 comments:

Justin said...

I think you make some great points. I wonder when we'll get to the point that Eurocentric fantasy becomes so overrated it's underrated.

Neth said...

Hmmm...I think it'll be a while.

Anonymous said...

Can't wait to read this one!

jollymoon said...

Hey I don't want to be anon....

jollymoon said...

I got me a copy... sounds really interesting.

I have loved her stuff since Legend of Paksenarrion...

Anonymous said...

Paksenarrion is Elizabeth Moon.

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