Review: Range of Ghosts

Posted: August 13, 2012 by in Books We Love (5/5 single_star) Meta: Elizabeth Bear, Fantasy

After the Great Khan’s death his heirs fought over his empire, wiping out entire armies. A grandson of the Khan, Temur is left for dead on the battlefield and miraculously survives to join the refugees fleeing the Steppes. But in order to avoid notice by an enemy that would kill him, he hides his identity.

Samarkar, former princess and now a widow, is close to completing her training to become a wizard. But despite great sacrifice, there’s no guarantee that she will actually be able to wield magic at all.

The necromancer al-Sepehr is aiding Temur’s cousin to re-conquer the Khaganate, and he will do anything to win, even raise the dead to fight the living.

RANGE OF GHOSTS (Amazon) is the first book in a new series by Elizabeth Bear called The Eternal Sky. The winner of the Campbell Award for best new writer in 2005, Bear has only improved her craft. RANGE OF GHOSTS is a tale rich with character, story, and setting, but never feels rushed despite its relative brevity of 300 pages. This book deserves more attention than it’s getting.

Set in another Middle East (not unlike Earth’s) during an era of khans, we are inundated with information from page one: political, historical, cultural. At first Bear throws more information at us than we know what to do with. But it’s the very act of being dumped into this foreign land that sucks you in, the details of food, locale, and culture that the main characters take for granted. Things like how the sky changes in relation to the kingdom below it. How a steppe native would never drink mare’s milk unfermented. How a prince of the Khanganate defers respectfully to a woman, but a prince of Rasa will use a woman for his own purposes. How a cult following of a long-banished sorcerer-prince uses blood magic.

But while the world of RANGE OF GHOSTS is unfamiliar to Western readers, Bear fills it with enough of the familiar to make the setting easier to digest. Here the characters are oft-used archetypes: the princess married off for political gain; the reluctant prince who loses his kingdom; warrior monks; wise and powerful wizards; and, yes, even cat people (usually this would be a cause for shuddering… fortunately Bear makes it work). There’s even the map in the front of the book and the epic trope of characters traveling across various landscapes. In another book they would have been cliché, but here Bear breathes new life into old ideas with a setting that creates a different story. A story that is awesome.

Temur and Samarkar are the main PoVs; al-Sepehr provides a handful of villainous scenes so we know why and who is trying to kill Temur. While both are relatively young (Temur around 18, Samarkar in her late 20s I think), they’ve already experienced the darker side of life, but still have hope–it’s easy to admire their tenacity. They’re under no illusions that evil exists, but still look for the good in people. And while they fear for the future of their respective peoples, they’re willing to risk their lives for those they love. Bear does her best to draw these archetypes with their own unique strengths and motives. It makes these two main heroes easy to identify with and like.

After the Great Khan's death a grandson, Temur, is left for dead on the battlefield but survives to join the refugees fleeing the Steppes in RANGE OF GHOSTS

The plot is straightforward and tends toward the predictable. Fortunately the characters and setting move the story along. Once the various character plot lines converge, the story finally takes off–even though the book never does move particularly fast. But it’s Bear’s thoughtful writing and beautiful prose that pulls readers into her well-researched and delightfully imagined world more than anything.

The end isn’t precisely a cliffhanger, but Bear doesn’t leave you without a consolation wrap-up. At the very least she raises the stakes in exciting ways that left me thirsty for book two.

Clearly this book isn’t for everyone. If you liked THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS (EBR Review) this book is for you. If you prefer the violent anti-heroes of Abercrombie then probably not so much.

  • Recommended Age: 16+
  • Language: Little to none
  • Violence: Pain and blood, but not overly violent or gruesome
  • Sex: One brief scene with detail, otherwise referenced


  • mtbikemom says:

    Sounds like my cuppa. It's on the list.

  • Dylan Book Reader says:

    This sounds like a really good story that's right down my alley, but I did not like The Hundred Thousnad Kingdoms at all. Would you still recommend this book?

    • Vanessa says:

      Dylan, yes I recommend it (which is why I gave it a Love rating), and it's different enough from THTK. It's definitely not as hard/gritty as other fantasy out there, which is what I was trying to express.

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