Range of Ghosts

Elizabeth Bear
Range of Ghosts Cover

Range of Ghosts


First posted at http://bloodygranuaile.livejournal.com/34396.html

I had the privilege of buying Elizabeth Bear's Range of Ghosts directly from the author, along with a few of her other books. She is one of the many awesome people I met at Readercon, so I was happy to pay for shiny signed new physical copies plus shipping rather than buying an ebook, even though I've never read any of her other stuff.

I do not regret this decision at all.

Range of Ghosts is a political fantasy and it's based largely on the medieval Middle East and Asia. A major theme is the rise and fall of empires; the empire that owns most of the known world at the time of this story is the Qersnyk Khaganate, which is largely based off the Mongol Empire—the Qersnyk are a culture made up of a number of nomadic horse tribes from the steppe. The Khaganate is facing civil war after the death of the Great Khagan. Other kingdoms, empires, and former empires—some subject to the Khaganate; some on its borders—have their own cultures and their own reactions to the war within the Khaganate. How closely these other kingdoms seem to be based on other Asian and Middle Eastern cultures varies, or possibly my familiarity with the cultures in question does. The different cultures and the different factions within the political houses are all well-characterized and clearly differentiated. As far as I can tell, there are no white people in the entire book.

My familiarity with Mongol history is very limited, so around the time I began reading this book I also listened to a five-part Hardcore History podcast called "The Wrath of the Khans," and learned stuff about Genghis Khan and his heirs. It was both educational and disturbing, because welcome to history.

One of our protagonists is Temur, grandson of the Great Khagan, and now the heir with the most legitimate claim to the throne, as his cousin has killed off his elder brothers while trying to seize the position. The cousin is named Qori Buqa, which personally frustrates me, since I noticed that Qori Buqa seems like it would be pronounced close to Cory Booker and I am like "Noooo Cory Booker is awesome; this cannot be the bad guy" but that's all me. (I voted for Cory Booker TODAY. Yay!)

Our other main viewpoint character is the Once-Princess Samarkar, who, after arranging to be widowed, tries to remove herself from the vicious political situation in the Rasan Empire by becoming a wizard. The process for becoming a wizard of Tsarepheth involves a surgery to remove her ovaries; wizards must be infertile for their magic to manifest. Samarkar is awesome; more on that later.

The worldbuilding in this book is often really creepy, in a good way. The skies are different over each country, and change to reflect changes in political borders and leadership—so when the Khaganate takes over another land, their sky changes to the Qersnyk sky, which features a personal moon for each member of the ruling family (this provides a handy guide for who is still alive at the end of every day). The magic that can be wielded by humans comes in ways that require high costs and intense training—wizardry can only come when the body has lost its ability to procreate, and seems to be largely based on manipulating elements with one's will. Sorcery, which is much more sinister, seems to be mostly blood magic, and frequently involves killing people. In addition, objects can be cursed or ensorcelled. The dead must be sent along to the afterlife with whatever prayers and rituals are required by their culture, or else their ghosts stick around and can be manipulated with sorcery, which is bad news, because when ghosts attack you they can suck out your life/warmth/energy, and they can only be repelled with salt.

After surviving an absolute massacre of a battle (even by battle standards), Temur hides his identity for a bit as he and his awesome horse take up with a bunch of refugees, and he develops a relationship with a badass young Qersnyk woman named Edene, who also has an awesome horse. When Edene is abducted by a huge army of scary-ass blood ghosts, because she is too badass to get abducted by anything less, Temur, accompanied by his and Edene's awesome horses, goes in search of her. It is on this quest that he meets Samarkar, out on her first real wizarding assignment to the city of Qeshqer, which, it turns out, has been completely depopulated and its people's bodies used for more creepy sorcery. Everything beyond this is entirely too complicated for me to sum up but suffice to say that there is a creepy blood-magic murder cult that is trying to deliberately sow war and kill people, including Temur, and they have Edene.

Edene gives us more insight into the creepy murder cult as she becomes a viewpoint character. I almost just wrote that she is my favorite viewpoint character except that's not true—no one character is my favorite viewpoint character because the really great use of viewpoints here is in the way they all play off each other. So we get the inside view of the creepy murder cult from both Edene, the outsider, and a guy known as Al-Sepehr, the sorcerer who seems to be our main villain (one of them, anyway. It's complicated). And when Temur and Samarkar are travelling together, which is for a pretty big section of the book, the narrative keeps switching back and forth between both their viewpoints. All the viewpoints are very distinct and shaped strongly not just by their narrator's individual personalities (the way we think of personalities, in terms of traits and general attitudes) but are also very clearly rooted in their personal experience, particularly in terms of their knowledge of and experience of different geographies and cultural practices, etc.—some characters have seen oceans before and some haven't; some have never seen desert; the Qersnyk do not have the custom of kissing so this is a weird foreign custom to them (it is apparently true in the real world that some cultures do not have kissing, at least according to a bunch of the anthro texts I used to read for Pearson; this is one of the things I cannot get over thinking is really weird); the steppe characters feel claustrophobic in enclosed mountain holdfasts and the mountain characters feel lost and exposed on the steppe. It helps that the characters are very well-realized, and often fairly sympathetic to modern reader biases in terms of their values and priorities, so it's easy to get into their headspaces, and then it cramps your poor modern brain to be in the headspace of someone who is thinking about all sorts of complicated, advanced political scheming one minute and, like, boggling over the existence of pillows the next. I love it.

I have the book in trade paperback, but I strongly suggest buying it in hardcover so the next time you run into an asshole who claims that "politically correct" fantasy about anyone-other-than-white-dudes is boring, you can more easily beat them to death with it. I have no idea where this series is going except that I am pretty sure somebody will die at some point because so far this book doesn't pussyfoot around, and I don't want anyone to die because everybody is awesome. (Seriously, I am Mark Does Stuff levels of unprepared.) I will probably pick up the second book in October when I will be attending a book signing for Elizabeth Bear and her adorkable boyfriend Scott Lynch (author of The Lies of Locke Lamora, which I read in August). Then I will have all the awesome signed books and everyone had better be jealous.